May Film Fests Span the Decades

by Sura Wood

May is the gateway to summer and its seasonal big-budget blockbusters, but this month there is also film fare for audiences seeking original independent movies, topical documentaries and vintage classics.

The 23-year-old San Francisco Silent Film Festival has expanded from four to five days to accommodate a wealth of silent-era films along with 40 musicians from around the world who provide the live musical accompaniment at each screening. The festival opens with “The Man Who Laughs” (1928), an American horror melodrama based on Victor Hugo’s 1869 book. Adapted for the screen by German expressionist director Paul Leni, it tells the tale of Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt), whose father is executed by King James II in 17th-century England. Kidnapped as a boy by a comprachico, or child-buyer, who permanently disfigures Gwynplaine’s face to display a malicious grin, ensuring “he will laugh forever at his fool of a father,” he grows up to become the star attraction of a traveling freak show.

An alluring Greta Garbo appears in her breakthrough role in ”The Saga of Gösta Berling,” a 200-minute epic inspired by Selma Lagerlöf’s 1891 novel, considered Sweden’s “Gone with the Wind.” Director Mauritz Stiller, a leading light in Swedish cinema, discovered the young Greta Gustafsson and cast her as a newly married woman who falls in love with a defrocked minister (Lars Hanson). Garbo’s performance is said to have caught the eye of MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer, who flew her to Hollywood and turned her into a reluctant star. “Mare Nostrum,” loosely based on the exploits of a very different kind of seductress—the infamous spy Mata Hari—is a confluence of espionage, romance and submarine combat, beautifully shot by John Seitz on location in the Mediterranean.

But where would a silent film program be without Buster Keaton? He is in top form in the closing night feature “Battling Butler” (1926), in which he portrays a rich dandy. To help him “man up,” his wealthy parents dispatch him to the wilderness on a camping expedition; unbeknownst to them, he brings along a brass bed and a personal valet. Promptly smitten with a voluptuous mountain maiden, he proposes marriage. When her father and brother reject his proposal because they regard him as a weakling, Keaton tries to pass himself off as a prizefighter. Many comic antics ensue but all ends well with his lady love on his arm and Keaton attired in boxer shorts and top hat. It’s a good look for him.

May 30 → June 3 at the Castro Theatre; 777-4908

SF DocFest’s offbeat films explore the lives of unconventional people who think outside the box and pursue unusual dreams or desires. “Silicone Soul” delves into a subculture of individuals who emotionally bond with life-like dolls, while Guy Fiorita’s “Mole Man” follows the fortunes of a 66-yearold autistic man who has spent the last 50 years erecting a remarkable 50- room structure in his parents’ backyard. Sometimes an idiosyncratic pursuit turns into an unlikely phenomenon. That’s the case with “Freaks and Geeks,” a short-lived 1999 television series about teenage travails that developed an ardent cult following and launched the careers of many successful actors. Aided by interviews with the cast and crew, filmmaker Brent Hodge reveals previously unreported anecdotes about the making of the one-season, 18-episode wonder. The show’s famous alumni include its executive producer, Hollywood powerhouse Judd Apatow (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”), as well as Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini and the ubiquitous James Franco.

Wade Rathke, the controversial community organizer who founded ACORN in 1970, is the subject of “The Organizer,” a portrait of a frequently misunderstood occupation and an embattled leader. ACORN, which helped low-income families with voter registration, affordable housing and other social issues, had been the largest community advocacy group in the country before it was forced to shut down in 2010 following several high- profile scandals. Through archival footage and interviews with people dedicated to affecting change and assisting the marginalized, the film, from Berkeley producer Charles Koppelman, charts the growth of ACORN’s clout and the conflicts from within and without that contributed to its demise.

Bill Murray’s notorious habit of showing up unbidden in unexpected places and befriending strangers is explored in Tommy Avallone’s “The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man,” which good-naturedly investigates the purported sightings and rumored encounters with the wry comedian. Avallone spoke with journalists and others who speculate on possible connections between Murray’s legendary surprise visits and roles in his various movies, traveling to Austin, Texas, and to Murray’s stomping grounds in Charleston, South Carolina, where he met residents the actor has chatted up or dropped in on.

May 31 → June 14 [email protected]/(415) 662-FEST

This year’s CAAMFest, a celebratory fusion of food, music and more than 100 films by and about Asian-Americans, is also a platform for “The Chinese Exclusion Act,” a timely documentary by Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu about the first law to restrict immigration solely on the basis of a person’s nationality. Signed in 1882, the legislation, which made it illegal for Chinese nationals to come to U.S. or become citizens, was in response to decades of rhetoric and violence targeting Chinese immigrants. The immigrants were scapegoats for Americans in tough economic straits and also for ambitious politicians who incited anti-immigrant fervor to boost their careers. Wayne Wang’s gently comic 1989 movie “Eat a Bowl of Tea,” set in New York’s Chinatown, weaves a story illustrating the impact of the Exclusion Act on the lives of first-generation Chinese immigrants during the 1940s and the hardships they endured. It centers on the poignant, often amusing romantic complications that arise for a group of men who had been legally barred from bringing their families to the U.S.

A younger crop of filmmakers coping with 21st-century dilemmas is highlighted in two debut features. Suzi Yoonessi’s “Unlovable” draws on co-screenwriter Charlene DeGuzman’s semi-autographical account of her downward spiral into sex and love addiction and her road to recovery. The film, whose serious topic is punctuated by moments of humor, opens at a critical juncture for Joy (DeGuzman); she has hit bottom after a succession of ill-advised life choices, from binge drinking to meaningless, sometimes humiliating sexual encounters that have damaged her career and her relationship with her boyfriend and left her homeless. A botched suicide attempt finally prods her to enlist a former addict (Melissa Leo) as her sponsor and commit to the 12-step program that helps her turn her life around.

In “Minding the Gap” cinematographer, director, co-star and skateboarding enthusiast Bing Liu goes inside the hyper-masculine culture of skateboarding, tagging along with several childhood friends for whom the sport offers not only recreation and release but camaraderie and a substitute family. Shot on and around the deserted streets and parking lots of Rockford, Illinois, a blue-collar city that’s fallen on hard times, and executive produced by Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”), the doc’s most exhilarating sequences capture kinetic, death-defying skating stunts. But Liu, who engages in insightful conversations with his buddies about their respective pasts and uncertain future, is equally interested in how these boys are growing into men in a community plagued by violence and by abusive families, most with absentee fathers.

May 10 → 24 863-0814