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Reel World 

Wednesday, Jul 14 1999
When Camera Obscura -- the unpredictable San Francisco filmmaker, not the threatened Ocean Beach landmark -- began work a decade ago on her low-budget debut feature Virtue, digital culture hadn't yet taken over the city. Sure, the daily papers ran long, adulatory stories about Jaron Lanier's spellbinding virtual reality technology, but the real hipsters were tuned in to SOMA's artists or the Castro's transgender pioneers.

Which is where Camera found the flamboyant stars Connie Champagne, Philip R. Ford, and Miss X for her sexed-up, whacked-out, Alice in Wonderland-inspired fable about the perils of substituting 0's and 1's for human interaction. "I actively sought out the freakiest, most marginalized people I could," Camera remembers, aiming for both shock value and maximum visual interest. She also made a play for intellectual controversy, splicing philosophical discussions with Timothy Leary, William Gibson, R.U. Sirius, and John Perry Barlow into the narrative.

Following a raucous cast and crew screening at the Roxie after Virtue was finally finished in 1997, Camera submitted the work to several festivals without success. That would have been the end of the story, except that upstart indie distributor Margin Films (headed by L.A. filmmaker Quentin Lee, whose Flow plays the Lumiere July 24-25) got involved. Margin opened Virtue in L.A. in February to good reviews (and little box office), then booked the film for a brief run beginning July 30 at the Lumiere.

The world -- and San Francisco -- has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. Most of Camera's actors and accomplices are gone, dead, or relocated to Los Angeles or Portland. And while Virtue is still entertaining, especially at a brisk 72 minutes, it's a bit quaint. "I worked my whole life since I was 16 to achieve a level of filmmaking expertise where I could be offered jobs in Hollywood," says Camera, who was born and raised in Southern California before fleeing north. "Now that Hollywood has changed, I'm no longer interested."

Food is where it's at, she declares. "The only entertainment left that can't be digitized or sped up or put into a memory is eating, digesting, and shitting."

Good thing those brave souls at the Presidio Trust don't fear the digital future, and eagerly handed George Lucas a 24-carat prize. After all, what could possibly be cleaner, sexier, and more creative than computer-based filmmaking? Lest we forget, Lucas has spent the last 15 years milking his reputation and building his fortune through Star Wars-themed video games (through his LucasArts division) and pointless special effects for other people's movies (Industrial Light & Magic). He's a great businessman with the hubris and genius to masquerade as an artist; to buy his bull and call him a filmmaker is an insult to every director and writer who ever sweated over plot, character, and emotion. As for his future high-tech sweatshop at the Presidio "campus," will one of ILM's 400 recently laid-off digital workers lead the revolt against King George?

The Money Pit
Planet Hollywood, of all places, turned up in the coupon section of the Sunday paper a few weeks ago, announcing a sweepstakes and trimming $5 off a food purchase. I love the smell of desperation in the morning. ... After Hal Hinson's pan of Arlington Road ran in these pages last Wednesday, I received a call from the local publicist's assistant politely "disinviting" me from that evening's press screening because the Weekly had already reviewed the film and the theater was overbooked. Now that's class.

By Michael Fox

About The Author

Michael Fox


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