SFIFF Preview

So far, I’ve managed to preview three films that will screen at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. Here’s what I thought of them.

A Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy
I believe this is the first feature film adapted from a real-life Twitter feed. The title character (Patcha Poonpiriya) is a disturbed and spontaneous high-school senior. She and her best friend Suri (Chonnikan Netjui) live and study in a small boarding imageschool situated in what looks like an abandoned factory. Initially, they have the usual problems of late teenage years–romantic and sexual yearnings, revolting against authority, and doing stupid things on drugs. The first half is quite funny, in a sardonic, mild-chuckle kind of way. But the story takes some very dark turns in the second half, and becomes appropriately serious. Oddly, with its CRT computer monitors, dot matrix printers, and film-based still cameras, the picture appears to be set in the 1990s. And yet, Mary’s tweets appear onscreen throughout.

Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy will play at the New People Cinema Friday, May 2 at 2:00 and Sunday, May 4 at 3:00. It will play at the Kabuki Tuesday, May 6 at 9:00. To my knowledge, it will not otherwise get an American release.

B Young & Beautiful
As François Ozon’s drama about a 17-year-old girl going from virgin to high-priced hooker to fully-developed character takes a major turn at the halfway point, suddenly imagebecoming a film worth watching. After all, a film about a teenager losing her virginity doesn’t mean much if the character isn’t interesting. Then, suddenly she’s a prostitute. We watch her have sex is old, rich men over and over, but we can’t figure out why (she doesn’t need the money). Then her mother finds out. Suddenly, we’ve got a family in crisis, trying to come to terms with their daughter’s inexplicable behavior. We finally learn anything meaningful about the characters.It’s a close call, but I’d say that getting to the second half of this film is worth sitting through the first.

Young & Beautiful plays at the Kabuki, Monday, April 28 at 9:30 and Thursday, May 1, at 3:45. The film’s regular theatrical run starts May 9.

C+ When Evening Falls on Bucharest Or Metabolism
This extremely low-key exercise about a film director and an actress has the matter-of-fact look and feel of early Jim Jarmusch–with the camera just sitting there and recording what’s going on in front of it. I don’t believe imagethere’s a single cut within a scene. And most of those one-shot scenes use a completely static camera. Sometimes a scene ends, and the camera stays on, facing a wall or parking space for several seconds for no apparent reason. Slowly, and seemingly almost by accident, you get to know a bit about these two. But you don’t get to know much about them. And besides, they just don’t seem all that interesting.

When Evening Falls on Bucharest Or Metabolism screens at the New People Cinema, Friday, April 25 at 3:45; at the Kabuki, Saturday, April 26 at 6:30, and at the Pacific Film Archive, Monday, April 28, at 8:30. It will likely have a theatrical run after the Festival, but I don’t know when.

This Year’s San Francisco International Film Festival Announced

It feels like winter has finally arrived, but according to the calendar, it’s aready spring. And that means this years’ San Francisco International Film Festival is only weeks away. The Film Society has been releasing bits of news for weeks, but Tuesday morning, they held the big press conference, and then the entire schedule went live on the Internet.

The festival opens Thursday, April 24, and closes Friday, May 9. Over those 16 days, the Festival will screen 168 films, including 103 features (74 narratives, 29 documentaries). The films will be in 40 languages. There will be five US premieres, five North American premieres, and three world premieres (and yes, that’s a total of 13, not five).

The festival opens with The Two Faces of January, which new Executive Director Noah Cowan described at the press conference as a “rip-roaring thriller.” Since it’s based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley), it could very likely be that.


Awards are always a big part of the festival. Richard Linklater, who made big splashes at SFIFF the last two years with Bernie and Before Midnight, wins this year’s Founder’s Directing Award. Since I’ve yet to see a film of his I didn’t like, I can’t complain. The ceremony honoring him will include a screening of his new film, Boyhood, a narrative feature that he made on-and-off over a 12-year period, allowing his protagonist to age from six to 18.

The Kanbar Award for screenwriting this year goes to Stephen Gaghan. I’ve only seen two of his films–Traffic and Syriana (which he also directed)–and was disappointed with both of them. The event honoring Gaghan will include a screening of Syriana.

By the way, both Linklater and Gaghan are now writer-directors. At the press conference, I asked how the programmers decided which one to honor as a writer and which as a director. Director of Programming Rachel Rosen admitted that that decision can be tricky, but pointed out that Gaghan made a reputation for himself as a screenwriter and then started directing, while Linklater burst into the film scene as an independent writer-director. (For what it’s worth, the first director to receive that award, Akira Kurosawa, was an established screenwriter before he became a director.)

This year’s Mel Novikoff Award, given to those who have "enhanced the film-going public’s appreciation of world cinema," goes to writer and critic David Thomson. In addition to talking and answering questions, Thomson will screen my all-time favorite screwball comedy, The Lady Eve.


Speaking of classics, the festival has two silent film nights, both with unusual musical accompaniment. The first of these, Thao and The Get Down Stay Down, has Thao Nguyen and her band, the Get Down Stay Down, accompanying various silent shorts, including Chaplin’s wonderful "The Pawnshop," Slavko Vorkapich’s "Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra," newsreels, and I’m not sure what else.

However, I’ll probably skip the second silent film night, Stephin Merritt with The Unknown. I like The Unknown, one of  Tod Browning’s best Lon Chaney vehicles. Unfortunately, I heard Merritt’s horrible accompaniment for  the silent 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 2010. I have no desire to see him massacre another silent film.

By the way, when the usual film-vs.-digital question came up at the press conference, Cowan guessed that The Unknown and "The Pawnshop" will be the only programs in the festival projected in 35mm. (Another program, whose name I didn’t catch, will be in 16mm, with two projectors running simultaneously at different speeds.) Rosen told us that they had a choice of screening The Lady Eve on film or digitally, but the digital version looked better. "It’s a digital restoration." I’m fine with that, although I know that many are not.

Here’s something promising among the documentaries: Agnès Varda: From Here To There. I’ve only recently come to appreciate Varda–the queen of the French New Wave. I’m sure she’d be as famous as Godard and Truffaut if she’d been born with a penis. In this French TV miniseries, she travels the world and interviews interesting people. But at 225 minutes, it’s a major time commitment. 


The festival will close with the family drama Alex of Venice, about an environmental lawyer (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) struggling after her husband leaves her. According to the website and the press conference, Don Johnson gives an excellent performance as her aging actor father (possibly not a major stretch).

What Maisie Knew

A- Family drama

  • Written by Nancy Doyne & Carroll Cartwright
  • Based on the novel by Henry James
  • Directed by Scott McGehee & David Siegel

Full disclosure: I’m inclined to go easy on movies where a very likeable, good-looking, and essentially decent character has the first name Lincoln. Those of you named Bob or John probably won’t understand.

What Maisie Knew follows the aftereffects of a very angry, messy, and vindictive divorce between two selfish jerks who deserve each other. But their young daughter, Maisie (Onata Aprile), deserves and requires something much better than either of them.

As the title suggests, the film tells its story from Maisie’s point of view. We see nothing that she doesn’t see, or hear anything she doesn’t hear. Of course, we understand what’s going on better than she does. But the subjective style allows us to further empathize with this innocent human being so utterly devoid of power.

Julianne Moore plays Maisie’s monster of a mother. An aging rock star who hasimage probably seen better days, she’s incapable of relating to another human being as anything other than an extension of herself. She acts out her love for her daughter–in the opening scene she sings her to sleep–but she ripples with jealousy if the girl bonds with anyone else. She verbally abuses her husband within earshot of their child.

The makeup and costume department did everything they could to age Moore. Gone is the still-beautiful middle-aged mother of The Kids are All Right. Here, Moore looks old and worn out, as if she’d taken too many drugs, smoked too many cigarettes, and allowed her fear and anger to wear her down.

Maisie’s art dealer father (Steve Coogan) seems almost as bad as her mother. Perhaps he’s just as horrible, but he has less screen time  in which to make a bad impression. He’s certainly selfish and self-centered. One suspects that he fights for joint custody not so much out of love for his daughter as punishment for his ex-wife.

Both mother and father marry younger lovers, not so much on a rebound as to give them greater leverage in court. The father marries Maisie’s nanny (Joanna Vanderham), which is a step in the right direction. After all, she already has a close and loving relationship with Maisie, and she has considerable childcare skills.

But it’s the mother’s new husband, the aforementioned Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), who has the most interesting and positive character arc. A bartender who improbably finds himself married to a rock star, he’s initially uninterested in his new stepdaughter. But as his irresponsible wife leaves him with more and more of the parenting responsibilities, he grows into the role, becoming the loving adult that Maisie so desperately needs.

Everyone in the cast is spot on, but I’d be unfair not to offer specific praise for the young star. At no point was I reminded that Onata Aprile was a child performer. She was, quite simply, a little girl caught between very bad parents, finding joy wherever she could. She carried the film.

The ending wraps things up a little too neatly, but that’s really my only complaint. This should be seen by everyone contemplating parenthood.

I saw What Maisie Knew at a press screening prior to its Bay Area premiere at the 2013 San Francisco International Film Festival.

SFIFF: The Festival Closes with Before Midnight

Thursday night, this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival ended at the Castro with the local premiere of Before Midnight, Richard Linklater’s threequel to Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.

(It wasn’t actually the festival’s end.  Six other films screened at various theaters after Before Midnight began. The last one, Il Futuro, started at the Pacific Film Archive at 8:50; Before Midnight was over by then.)

Although I came in skeptical about the whole idea of an art house threequel, Before Midnight won be over. I easily give it an A.

This time around, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) have been living together for nine years, and they might as well be married. They have twins, a life imagetogether, and bodies transitioning into middle age. Like the previous films, this one takes place in a single day, but they don’t spend it walking around a city. They’re on vacation in Greece, and they drive, share a talkative dinner with six other people, and spend considerable time in a hotel room. And they fight. Hard. They still love ach other, but you’re not sure if the relationship will last. The result is both sad and sexy.

The film was written by Delpy, Hawke, and director Richard Linklater. After the movie, Delpy and Linklater came onstage for Q&A (Hawke was unable to attend). Some highlights:

  • Linklater: The decision to do the second [move] was scary… Somewhere we realized that Jesse and Celine were still alive and we had to see what they’re doing. But this one was more difficult.
  • Linklater, on a big dinner scene where they interact with three other couples: We couldn’t do the same thing again. We had to see them in their lives. And that included other people.
  • Delpy: I come from a musical background. I remember all the training. Same thing with acting. The goal is to feel like you just stepped in and did it. But it takes tons of rehearsal.
  • Delpy, on exposing her breasts for the first time in this series: We knew we needed to go that far. You don’t have sex with a bra. [To Linklater] Maybe you do.
  • Linklater, talking about the choice to give them twins: I have identical twins. Those two kids [the child actors, not his own twins] in the back seat were wonderful in that 13-minute take.
  • Delpy, on the big argument scene: You get to write the arguments, and that’s great. It’s your dream argument. I wish I could have arguments like that.

After the Q&A, I made my way to the Closing Night Party at Ruby Skye, a downtown club I’d never before visited. It was large enough to be comfortable. The music was loud enough to enjoy, but not so loud as to block conversation. Food booths around the place, each run by a different caterer, offered a wide variety of tasty but mostly unhealthy fare.

It was a nice way to end the festival, and I regretted having to leave early.

SFIFF Silent Movie Night: Waxworks with Mike Patton, Scott Amendola, Matthias Bossi, and William Winant

Every year, the San Francisco Intl. Film Festival hosts a silent film event, where they match a movie–generally not one everyone has seen–with one or more musicians who enjoy a strong local following–but are not associated with silent film accompaniment.

This makes sense both culturally and financially. The event, always held at the Castro, attracts both silent film fans and fans of the musicians. The two groups mingle, and each is exposed to something new. And more people buy tickets, as well.

At least that’s the theory. Sometimes it works beautifully. Other times it doesn’t work at all.

Tuesday night, it worked beautifully. Let’s start with the movie:

With its exaggerated visuals and strong horror elements, Waxworks is German expressionism through and through. Directed by Paul Leni in 1924, it’s the only film I’ve seen with both major stars from the period: Emil Jannings and Conrad Veidt. Unfortunately, they have no scenes together. (Leni, Jannings, and Veidt all moved to Hollywood before the decade ended. Jannings and Veidt returned to Germany when sound came in. Veidt left for good after Hitler came to power. Jannings, to his immortal shame, did not.)

This anthology feature uses a simple framework to tell three different dark and imagedemented stories. A young writer takes a job in a wax museum, coming up with stories for the exhibits. Most of the film is made up of two such stories. The first stars Jannings as a sultan out to take a baker’s wife. The second stars Veidt (easily one of the best heavies cinema ever had) as the most evil Ivan the Terrible you can imagine. The third story, about Jack the Ripper (Werner Krauss) is nothing more than a chase.

Like all anthology movies, it’s uneven. But I enjoyed it.

The music helped considerably. I know nothing about the musicians that took the stage–Mike Patton, Scott Amendola, Matthias Bossi, and William Winant–I can’t even tell you if they play together regularly.  Their music–harsh, percussion-heavy, and usually without melody–would probably drive me crazy under any other circumstance. But it suited the film perfectly, adding to the creepy feel. They found plenty of ways to produce the sounds they wanted, including scat singing and rubbing a balloon. At home point, when Veidt rhythmically claps as wedding guests dance (only Veidt could make that threatening), one of the musicians beat two wooden sticks together for each clap.

The Festival got a hold a beautiful, tinted, 35mm print from Cineteca di Bologna. Some scenes were both tinted and toned–creating a two-color effect that until last night I had never seen on the big screen. There were a few scratches and a couple of moments of nitrate decomposition, but it was still a joy to watch. Although it was a German film and the print came from an Italian archive, the intertitles were in French. The Castro projected English translations as supertitles.

All told, a wonderful evening.

Harrison Ford at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I caught the Harrison Ford event Tuesday afternoon. Unfortunately, I got a lousy seat. Near the back and over to the side. That's what I get for wasting time.

After an introduction by Ted Hope, and clip reels honoring the recently-deceased donor George Gund III and, of course, Harrison Ford, David Darcy came onstage to lead the discussion. He introduced Ford, who received a standing ovation.

Ford was relaxed and funny. He was clearly enjoying the experience. Some highlights of their discussion and the Q&A with the audience:

  • “I'm not really a leading man anymore. That's my former job. I'm happy to now play supporting parts, character parts.”
  • On how the business has changed: “I think films are more sophisticated today than 20 years ago. I find complex to characters that I didn't see twenty years ago, and in the kind of movies that need a leading man.”
  • “I'm sorry that people don't watch movies in theaters as much as they used to. Movies are best seem with strangers, in the dark. [Then the lights come up and] you're with people you've gone on an emotional journey with.”
  • One audience member asked if Ford would name his soon-to-be-born son. He declined.
  • When asked about whether he's involved with Disney's upcoming Star Wars sequel: “I'm not at liberty to discuss it. Either Star Wars or the incident with Lady Gaga.”
  • About Indiana Jones: “I felt we needed to learn something new about Jones every time. I'd still like to do one. I'd like to see what happens when he can't run that fast. And when he doesn't like hitting people or getting hit. I think we should do that in the next five years or so.”

After the talk, enough people left to allow me to get a good seat for The Fugitive.

It was digitally projected, and looked like the kind of presentation that gives digital cinema a bad name. There was little detail. Everything was a bit soft. I don't know what it was projected off of, but if it was a DCP, it was a really bad transfer. If it was a Blu-ray, it was still a bad transfer. I just checked Blu-ray.com's review, and they described the transfer as “mostly abysmal.” I agree.

But the movie itself holds up (I hadn't seen it since it was new). In a very Hitchcockian plot (adapted from a 60's TV show), Ford plays a doctor arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death for the murder of his wife. He escapes, and spends the rest of the film running from a US Marshall (Tommy Lee Jones in a career-defining role) while trying to solve the mystery. The movie sports some great action set pieces (including a train wreck), but is built mostly around the twin mysteries and the characters driving them. The final sequence goes on a little too long, but overall very good.

Let me put it this way: If you love North by Northwest, you'll like The Fugitive.

Cambodia, India, and the Cloud: SFIFF Documentary Sunday

I saw three films at the San Francisco International Film Festival on Sunday–all documentaries. That wasn’t planned. It just worked out that way.

B+ A River Changes Course
Kalyanee Mam’s ethnographic documentary follows three struggling families in imagemodern-day Cambodia. And while no river literally changes course, the modern world forces the film’s protagonists to severely alter their lifestyles. Corporations are chopping down the forests, fishermen are getting smaller catches, and young people leave for the city in a futile hope of raising their families out of poverty. Visually striking and deeply sad.

Unfortunately, I had to leave before Mam’s post-screening Q&A.

A River Changes Course will not play the festival again. However, it is on the list of files that "have secured U.S. distribution or are in negotiations with a U.S distributor," so you may get a chance to see it.

B Salma
This is in no way a well-made documentary. It’s poorly shot, and often leaves you imageconfused about many details. But the basic story is so strong you can forgive it almost anything. Salma, a Muslim woman born in a small Indian village, was effectively under house arrest for 25 years–first by her parents and then by the husband she was forced to marry. Her crime? Being female and passed puberty. But while imprisoned, she became a famous poet, and then a successful politician, fighting (not surprisingly) for women’s rights. It was only after she was elected that her husband let her out of the house. I would love to see this story better told.

Salma won’t screen again this festival. I’m not sure if you’ll ever have a chance to see this film.

A Google and the World Brain
In this wonderfully entertaining documentary, Ben Lewis takes us through Google’s attempt to scan every book in every library, and the copyright lawsuits that at least for imagenow have derailed it. Along the way it covers privacy issues, other digital archives, and the magic of an old-fashioned, paper-based library. Among the people interviewed are Wired’s Kevin Kelly (who gave the Festival’s 2008 State of the Cinema Address), an executive from Google Spain (the American headquarters refused to cooperate), an angry Japanese author, and a French librarian who seems to personify every annoying stereotype of the snooty Gallic intellectual.

The film manages a light, snappy feel despite the serious undertones. Computer-generated cityscapes, a server farm built into what appears to be a medieval cathedral, and animated interview subjects keep it visually lively.

Lewis is clearly worried about Google’s growing power and willingness to violate your privacy. But Google and the World Brain is no simple piece of propaganda. Both sides in this issue are treated fairly.

Lewis was unable to attend the screening (he lives in England and he has a new baby), but he was interviewed afterwards via Skype. Some highlights:

"Three or four years ago, I became interested in a study of the Internet, around issues of monopoly, free market, and privacy. I was looking for a story."

He considered a story about music piracy, but "Nobody sympathizes with musicians. We assume they don’t make any money."

"Just as we’re entering this knowledge economy, the people who are making this knowledge are told that we’ll give it away for free."

"Google makes money from what we produce."

On Google’s response to the film: "They didn’t want to take part in it. After it came out, they said they were deeply disappointed by the tone of the film."

I saw the last festival screening of Google and the World Brain. It’s not on the likely-to-be-released list, which surprised me. With it’s lively and funny presentation, immediate subject matter, and reasonably happy editing, this is about as commercial as a documentary gets.

SFIFF Saturday: Koreans in Japan, Geek Nostalgia, and a Surreal Documentary

Here’s what I saw Saturday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

B Our Homeland
For second-generation ethnic Koreans living in Japan, going "home" was once very important–even though "home" was the living nightmare of North Korea. In this calmly imageheart-breaking drama, a man in his early 40s who migrated to a Korea he’d never known 25 years earlier, returns to Japan and his family for a three-month medical leave. He’s withdrawn and frightened, perhaps because of the tumor eating his brain, but more likely because he’s spent most of his life in a place where there are choices and doubt are not allowed. He must adjust to his family–including his true-believer Communist father–and they must adjust to him.

Autobiographical, Our Homeland is told through the eyes of his much younger sister, Rie–a stand-in for writer/director Yang Yonghi.

But many of the film’s cultural and political aspects are opaque to those not already in the know. I wasn’t even sure what year–or decade–the film was set.

You’ve got one more chance to see Our Homeland at the festival: Monday, 1:00, at the New People Cinema. There are no plans for a regular American release.

B- Computer Chess
This reasonably funny mockumentary follows a computer chess tournament in 1980. imageAssorted geeks and nerds (including one "lady") show up at a hotel to test their hardware and software’s chess skills. The winning algorithm will then face an actual human chess master. To add color, a bizarre new-age group has its own gathering at the same hotel. The whole thing is shot in standard-def black-and-white; it looks awful but that’s the point. The jokes range from the clever to the obvious, and I have to admit that most of the audience laughed more than I did.

I saw Computer Chess’  last festival screening. However, it’s on the list of films that "have secured U.S. distribution or are in negotiations with a U.S distributor," so you may have your own chance to decide how funny it is.

A The Search for Emak Bakia
In 1920, surrealist artist Man Ray made a short film called  Emak Bakia. In the Basque language, that means something like "Go away!" or "Leave me along!" Far more recently, Oskar Alegria set out to discover the short’s history, inspirations, imageand locations. (As I write this, I have yet to see Man Ray’s original; I intend to fix that soon). The result, The Search for Emak Bakia, is an appropriately surreal documentary. In addition to conventional detective work–such as looking for a house with the right columns in the front–he follows a plastic glove blowing in the wind and turns his research to clowns on what could only be described as a irrelevant (but interesting) whim. Amongst the more conventional detective work, he finds an old woman who lived in the house as a young girl. The result is much more than informative; it’s magical.

After the film, Alegria stepped in front of the screen for Q&A. Some highlights:

"I loved the mystery [of the original film's creation]. If you see Man Ray films, you can’t see where they were made. I love mysteries, and mysteries have to be good if you want to make a long film."

"This is my first film and my last. I’m a journalist."

"When I was following the plastic glove, that’s not being a journalist. I had to put aside the journalist and be guided by chance."

About the woman: "We were trying to find the same house at the same time, using the same method, without knowing each other. And now we have become friends. She’s now 95 years old."

On its commercial prospects: "This is not a commercial film…I don’t want to make money with it."

"My mother taught me to have faith in magic."

You’ve got two more chances to see The Search for Emak Bakia this week. It plays the Kabuki Monday at 8:45, and the New People Cinema Thursday at 3:30. Since you’ll probably never get another chance to see this picture, I’d make it a top festival priority.

SFIFF: A Hijacking and a Working-Class Prince

I quit work early on Friday, and headed across the Bay to enjoy more of the San Francisco International Film Festival. I caught two films; both very much worth catching.

A A Hijacking
This isn’t your typical, fun, swashbuckling pirate movie. One truly harrowing thriller, A Hijacking puts you on a Danish cargo ship captured and held for ransom by Somali imagepirates. You experience most of the harrowing experiences through the eyes of the ship’s cook (Pilou Asbæk), a decent fellow and happily-married man who finds himself an expendable pawn in high-level negotiations. The film cuts between the ship and the offices of the company that owns it, where the CEO (Søren Malling) unwisely decides to do the negotiating himself. A work of fiction, A Hijacking feels like the real thing.

I caught the festival’s last screening of A Hijacking. However, Magnolia Pictures has picked it up, and it will open in San Francisco next month.

After that experience, I needed something lighter. I found it.

B+ Prince Avalanche
This meandering, character-driven comedy follows two men painting lines in the middle of a seldom-used country road. Alvin (Paul Rudd) loves the outdoors and imagesolitude, and sees himself as wise and in touch with nature. He also sees his younger partner, Lance (Emile Hirsch), as a hopeless idiot who only wants to party and get laid. They’re sort of related– Lance is Alvin’s girlfriend’s kid brother. The two argue, fight, meet an old trucker, get drunk, and bond. That’s pretty much it. But the scenery, the humor, and the warmth make that enough for a very pleasing entertainment.

After the film, writer/director David Gordon Green came on stage for some Q&A. He talked about why he chose to adapt the Icelandic film Either Way (yes, Prince Avalanche is a remake), and how the location inspired his decision to make the movie. He discussed his casting, the music, and the joys of working with a small crew: "We realized that if you don’t pay people, nobody comes."

I asked him about the title, which has nothing to do with the story. "I had a dream that I made a film called Prince Avalanche. It doesn’t really make sense for the movie, but it looks cool [written out]."

Once again, I caught the last Festival screening of this film. Like A Hijacking, Magnolia Pictures has picked up Prince Avalanche for American release. However, their Web site does not yet list any Bay Area dates. Let’s hope that changes.

The Source Family

B+ Documentary

  • Directed by Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos

Hippies, drugs, free love, meditation, spiritual quests, and Los Angeles-based vegetarian restaurants. You’ll find all of that in The Source Family. For me, the movie was downright nostalgic.

No, I was never a member of Jim Baker’s “family,” called The Source and the subject of this narratively-driven documentary. But I lived in LA in the early ’70s–a young, long-haired vegetarian in love with almost every aspect of the hippy culture. I ate at Baker’s restaurant, The Source, many times, and worked for a year in another LA vege eatery, Natural Fudge. I hitchhiked a lot in those days and met all sorts of people. I’m amazed that I never even heard of this group. (If I had heard of them, I would not have joined. Even at that age, I knew enough not to put total faith in a guru.)

Baker was a World War II vet with a history of violence and a good track record in the restaurant business. He started The Source, a very successful vegetarian restaurant on the Sunset Strip, in 1977. (Remember the scene near the end of Annie Hall where Alvie and Annie meet one last time at an outdoor restaurant? That was The Source, years after Baker had sold it.) He began experimenting with different religious traditions, and molded them into his own. Soon, he and his followers were living in a rented mansion and running the restaurant together.

You’d expect a documentary about an early 70s LA-based cult and hippy commune, centered around such a charismatic leader, to be an exposé–names like Charles Manson and Jim Jones come to mind. But The Source Family is a surprisingly the_sourcebalanced view of Baker’s “family.” Told almost entirely from the point of view of former commune members, the film paints a largely positive picture of early new age spirituality and anti-materialistic idealism. Decades after his death and the commune’s end, many of his followers still think of him as a holy man and refer to him as “father.”

Yet they, and the filmmakers, don’t hide his shortcomings. The hero worship went to his head–and to a less intellectual body part. Although his original rules for the group sanctified monogamous marriage, he took on multiple wives and put together a harem of very young, female admirers. Wille and Demopoulos don’t shy away from these negative character traits, or the disastrous decisions that left the community broke and despised in Hawaii.

Structured like a three-act narrative feature, The Source Family tells its story efficiently and engagingly. And musically–The Source had its own band, whose old recordings drive the movie’s soundtrack. If you’re interested in alternative lifestyles or new religions, or are just nostalgic for the Age of Aquarius, you’ll want to catch this one.

When I saw this documentary at the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival, it was called simply The Source. You’ll find more about it at SFIFF Report: Vegetarian Restaurants, Hippy Communes, and The Source. It opens Friday at the Roxie.


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