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Life Is a Serious Business; The Bad Sleep Well

Wednesday, Apr 26 2000
Life Is a Serious Business
After three decades and some 50 films, David Michalak just may have hit on a new genre: the epic short. His latest, When the Spirit Moves, took 10 years to complete and entailed the construction of a papier-mâché treehouse and a miniature magical forest. (Fresh vines had to be picked every day, a detail that Erich von Stroheim would have appreciated.) An adult fairy tale about healing and spiritual evolution, When the Spirit Moves depicts the bond between the Keeper of the Forest (played by Billie-Marie Gross) and an ailing creature who falls under her care (essayed by dancer Vong Phrommala, wrapped in a costume of burn-victim gauze).

When the Spirit Moves is a personal film, but not a self-referential one. ("I always want to include the audience," the San Francisco filmmaker told me some years ago. "This is communication, right?") The 20-minute fantasia caps a decade during which Michalak lost three members of his immediate family. "It might be my swan song," he said recently. "If it is, it would be a proper one." Film stock has gotten too expensive, and Michalak is unmoved by video or DV. "I like the way light looks passing through the silver image," he says.

Instead of a dirge, cue Reel Change -- sampler Joe Sabella, woodwind virtuoso Andrew Voigt, and Michalak on lap steel guitar. The trio devised soundtracks for Michalak's films, plus Webber and Watson's dense, dark 1928 adaptation of Fall of the House of Usher. Reel Change actually watches the screen while they play, unlike, say, the Club Foot and Alloy orchestras, who stare at the score. "That's kind of strange," Michalak muses, "when you're supposed to be playing with the film." The S.F. Cinematheque presents "When the Spirit Moves: Live Music for New Films" May 4 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

The Bad Sleep Well
British producer Anthony Wall came through town last week to interview a Bay Area Icon for a documentary on the art and influence of Akira Kurosawa. Wall swore me to secrecy, lest the Icon bail if he saw his name in print. "I don't have to tell you what Grade A global celebrities are like," Wall said. "They don't operate according to anybody else's rules." Slated for broadcast around year-end, the doc is backed by NHK (Japan), WNET (NYC), and Arena (U.K.). Wall runs the latter, "a unit of the BBC that's expected to come up with things that are a bit different," such as the S.F. film festival entry Wisconsin Death Trip.

Wall's a filmmaker in his own right, and his two-part, 2-1/2-hour opus, The Brian Epstein Story, premieres locally in June at the S.F. International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. Epstein, for those who flunked Rock 'n' Roll 101, was the Beatles' brilliant, notorious manager who, Wall recounts, "went from running a record shop in Liverpool to being one of the most famous people on Earth in the space of about a year." He died four years later, a few months shy of his 33rd birthday, a casualty of depression and drugs. Epstein was raised in the politically and sexually repressive 1950s, and Wall salutes him as "a principal agent of changing that -- and one of its victims." Can't buy me love,

Michael Fox is host of Independent View, which airs Fridays at 10:30 p.m. and Saturdays at midnight on KQED (Channel 9).

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Michael Fox


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