You Want To Start A Film Production Company? Why Not Make It A Non-profit?

You Want To Start A Film Production Company?  Why Not Make It A Non-profit?

by Chris Mason Johnson

I don’t have any statistics on this, but from what I can gather anecdotally, forming a non-profit to make a fictional feature film is a pretty rare thing, but it’s what I’ve done for my new (second) feature, Test, and it’s been a great experience. Mostly great. At first I did have to endure snarky questions from my non-filmmaking friends, along the lines of: “Aren’t you just admitting your film won’t make any money?” Well, no... (More on that later.) From my filmmaking friends the response was more of a blank stare, followed by: “I don’t know anyone else who’s done that.”

There are a lot of filmmakers out there who make one feature and then stop. They didn’t break through to that magical “next level,” and there’s no way they’re doing the same thing all over again. But for those of us who are determined to keep making films on a small scale, truly independently—and who actually enjoy it—it makes sense to explore new models in a distribution landscape that’s in the midst of its own creative destruction and reconfiguring.

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A Band Apart: Essential SF

A Band Apart: Essential SF

by Sean Uyehara
Photos by Michael Rauner

This past weekend, we presented the third annual Essential SF, the Film Society’s newest edition in our growing compendium of people, organizations and films that we consider “essential” to Bay Area film culture.

There’s a necessary arbitrariness to the selection each year, as there is no way that we can include every person, film, thing and idea that comprises the Bay Area film community (of course), and that’s not really the goal anyhow.  So, the Essential SF list isn’t exhaustive.

What it’s really aiming towards is the celebration of the social context we luckily have here for making, presenting and attending movies.

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Fear & Movies: Morocco, Hollywood and Me

Fear & Movies: Morocco, Hollywood and Me

By John Slattery

Having been overseas for three and a half years, I returned to the United States. When I came back, I came straight to San Francisco.

In the first few weeks people would ask, “So, where’d you move here from?” When I told them I’d just come from a year of teaching in Paris, 99% of their responses had a similar theme, which all fit into one category: I LOVE PARIS!

Often in the same conversations, their follow up question had to do with where I was before Paris. When I told them that I’d been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco for two and a half years—they had a very different kind of response.

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Sometimes You Have To Change The Ending, Metaphors & All…

By Alejandro Adams

“If we do not reunite Sykes and Thornton, which shows that people do side together, that they do stick with each other...then perhaps we have destroyed everything we have been talking about in this picture.”

—Producer Phil Feldman in a letter to Sam Peckinpah regarding the final scene of The Wild Bunch*

It's not every day that a notorious bruiser of a director gets along with his producer. But it's equally rare that a producer respects a filmmaker and his vision to the degree illustrated by the note above—Feldman had even protested Peckinpah excising some of the film's more violent bits. Directors are usually the ones who get so far up the ass of their own work they can't see clearly. In a somewhat alarming inversion, Feldman was a producer exhibiting more concern for the integrity of the film than for the paying audience.**

I've started with an anecdote about a producer not only because this quasi-promotional outing is brought to you by Ted Hope's kind invitation but also because filmmaking is about relationships, sometimes just one relationship, and it can feel like the scene that reunites Sykes and Thornton. Or not.

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by Sean Uyehara

My friend Meredith Brody once teased me a bit for calling a movie “delicious.” It’s ironic because, in addition to being a cinephile, she is a bona fide restaurant and food critic—one of the best that San Francisco has seen, in this writer’s humble opinion. Anyhow, she understood what I meant, and even delighted in the turn of phrase a bit, but the phrase is open for a bit of ribbing.

I bring it up because it’s the term that first came to mind when thinking of the Taiwan Film Days entry Days We Stared at the Sun. Also, I wrote it in the program note SFFS put on the web: “Delicious melodrama.” The film is based on a wildly popular Taiwanese television series. It’s setting is high school; the typical high school that is rife with drug abuse, bullying, class differences, cliques, adolescent rage, big government scandals and the occasional homicide. Ah, to be young again.

So, what makes Days We Stared at the Sundelicious? What can I possibly mean? I don’t mean that rhetorically only. I actually have needed to go back and figure out why I would want to say that. (Thanks, Meredith.)

If I say a movie is delicious, it’s almost certainly going to be a melodrama. It’s going to be excessive, full of diffuse and pleasurable surprises. A taut movie can’t really be delicious. That sandwich was taut, yum? Naw, that sandwich was overloaded with secrets and unexpected textures and flavors. Maybe the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten. That seems a bit more on track.

Here’s a strange thing I start to conclude from these cinegastronomical thoughts: as genres go, in general, it’s easier to justify liking a suspense film than a melodrama. And I wonder, is that true? I do in fact LOVE suspense films. Suspense is explicit in its pleasures. The tensions are conscious and on the table. As audience members, we want to know specific things—Who is the killer? Will he survive? Is she who she says she is? Does he even like pancakes? Okay, that last question is less common, but you get it: Suspense films address specific questions to audiences, tugging them along with a self-conscious playfulness.

With melodrama the pleasure is much more hazy. Excessive narration, excessive emotion, excess in general can overwhelm audiences with information that isn’t always apparently relevant. Manipulating the serial revelation of strange facts can sometimes feel like tricks: Okay, he’s her boss and her lover. Hold on he’s also her therapist… What?! And, he’s her brother? It’s a fine line between the ridiculous and the sublime here. Arguing in favor of melodrama takes resolve. It requires saying you are giggling with the film not in contempt of it. Days We Stared at the Sun is like that, a kind of scaffolding of unlikely events, piling up begging to crash at any second, defiantly and incredibly refusing to give in to reason and gravity. It’s terrifically delicious.

P.S. If you want to see one of the most crazy, delicious films ever, you have to check out Sympathy for Delicious, directed by and co-starring Mark Ruffalo.

Sean Uyehara is a programmer at the San Francisco Film Society.

Fallen Climate Superstar: The Fight for Democracy and Survival in the Maldives

by Mark Hertsgaard

This essay, presented in conjunction with the screening of The Island President at Film Society Cinema, is part of the Film Society's Global Threats Film Series, made possible with support from the San Francisco-based Skoll Global Threats Fund.

He's been called "the Mandela of the Maldives." And like anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, Mohammed Nasheed began public life as a courageous democracy activist who was jailed for years by a repressive regime he eventually helped to overthrow.  Also like Mandela, Nasheed was a stunningly handsome, charismatic candidate who went on to win the first free and fair elections in his country's history.  To the outside world, however, this 44 year old Liverpool John Moore's University graduate and father of two has been best known as a crusader against climate change, a reputation he acquired by holding the world's first underwater cabinet meeting, in 2009, to dramatize the threat that rising seas pose to the Maldives, a scattering of 1,200 low-lying islands off the southwest tip of India that boast some of the most beautiful beaches and high-end resorts on earth.

Nasheed solidified his hero's status at the otherwise discouraging Copenhagen climate summit later that year, where I saw his star power first hand.  Covering the summit for Vanity Fair and The Nation, I interviewed the Maldivian president hours after he had addressed a large gathering of climate activists in downtown Copenhagen. Introduced by Bill McKibben, the author and activist who founded the grassroots group 350.org, Nasheed thrilled the crowd by doing what no other head of government had done: endorsing the goal of reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million.  The 350 ppm target was derided as impossible, even naïve, by most of the negotiators at Copenhagen; after all, the concentration was already 387 ppm and climbing as global population and fossil fuel burning increased.  Nevertheless, more and more science indicated that returning to 350 ppm was necessary if humanity was to preserve a climate similar to that under which civilization has developed over the past ten thousand years.  After leading the crowd in a chant of "350, 350, 350," Nasheed exited the stage to thunderous applause, passing a sign that read, "You Are Our Global President."

The next day, I hurried along beside the president as he rushed from one meeting to the next inside the Bella Center, the vast conventional hall where the official negotiations were held.  We looked quite a pair, I'm told.  Nasheed stands no more than five feet, six inches and has the copper colored skin of his Indian Ocean ancestors; I'm six feet two and as pale and thin as our Danish hosts.  I had to bend my head low to hear his words as Nasheed said that the 350 ppm target might look unrealistic to some, but it was essential to the survival of his low-lying country and numerous others.  Indeed, Nasheed wanted the final agreement at Copenhagen to enshrine a temperature cap of 1.5 C, not the 2 C usually regarded as the "red line" for dangerous climate change.  "The idea is that people will agree not to murder others," he told me.  "Anything above 1.5 C and we [in the Maldives] have had it."

And then it happened.  We emerged from the restricted area of the Bella Center into the public zone where activists and other members of civil society had their booths, conducted briefings and ate meals.  Seated on the floor, a gaggle of young people suddenly took notice of Nasheed heading toward them.  Instantly, their eyes widened, their faces took on a rapturous glow and they leaped to their feet, clapping and shouting, "Thank you, Mr. President."  Their cheers alerted others and in seconds Nasheed was surrounded by scores of adoring activists, whooping and hollering and snapping photos on their cell phones as the president smiled and continued towards his next meeting.  It was real rock star adulation, unlike what I saw any other government official receive at the Copenhagen summit.

Now, barely two years later—and just in time for the release of a fine new documentary about him, The Island President—Nasheed has been forcibly removed from office by a military coup.  Although initial news reports were confusing, it now seems clear that when Nasheed resigned as president of the Maldives on February 7, he did so under extreme duress, compelled by military officials and others loyal to the former dictatorship, who warned that Nasheed and many others would die if he did not step down immediately.

The plotters themselves have admitted as much.  "I said [to Nasheed], if you did not resign there were only two options," Umar Naseer, the vice president of the People's Progressive Party of Maldives, told a televised public rally in the capital city of Male' on February 12.  "Firstly, resign with bloodshed. Next, resign peacefully. And [I told him] one of these two would happen today."  (For more on the coup and its aftermath, watch this gripping account, featuring interviews with Naseer, Nasheed and other key figures and reported by Australian SBS One TV's Mark Davis.)

Mohammed Nasheed thus brings together two of the towering issues of our time:  human rights and climate change.  Indeed, his example shows that the two cannot be separated from one another.  "What is the point of winning our freedom, Nasheed has asked, "if we lose our country to climate change?"  After the coup that deposed him, one might add a corollary:  what are the odds of saving The Maldives and other nations from climate change if people are not free to assemble, speak out and pressure those in authority to do what is necessary?

Both sides of Nasheed's political activism—the fight for human rights and the crusade for planetary survival—are compellingly presented by director Jon Shenk in The Island President.  With the face of a model and the courage of a street fighter, Nasheed makes for a charismatic star of the film, and the documentary is unabashedly but not unprofessionally partial to his point of the view.  The portrayal of the Copenhagen Accord, the agreement eventually reached at the summit, is an especially rosy one, considering that the emissions reductions it prescribed were purely voluntary and the accord was not actually adopted by the assembled nations.

Before parsing that argument, however, it's important to say that The Island President is far from a political tract.  Having apparently been granted all but total access, the filmmakers offer an extraordinarily intimate look at Nasheed the man, one of the most intimate visual portraits I have encountered of a sitting head of government.  We see Nasheed, for example, return to his hotel room after a long day of urging negotiators in Copenhagen to be bold, watch him lie down on his bed, remove his socks and fall asleep.  We see his wife, speaking to camera, recalling the difficult days when Nasheed was leading mass civil disobedience rallies against the dictatorship of former president Maumoon Gayoom, activity which led him to be jailed repeatedly and tortured twice.  His wife feared for the family's safety as well but felt powerless to curb her husband's non-violent activism.  "I suppose I could have left him," she says, "but he would have done it anyway." 

Above all, The Island President reveals how much of a head of state's time is consumed by empty ceremonial activities and how motivated many of Nasheed's counterparts appear to be by ego and small-minded concerns.  At a meeting of the world's small island states where Nasheed was urging a united, and tougher, stance in the upcoming Copenhagen negotiations, we see one fellow head of state gush through an interpreter that he appreciated Nasheed's "beautiful words," then turn brusquely away when Nasheed sought to engage him in further conversation.  At a luncheon meeting with the Environment Minister of India, the region's big power and a rising source of greenhouse gas emissions, Nasheed is repeatedly interrupted and lectured by the minister for his "unhelpful" suggestions that India—and not just the rich industrial nations—should limit its emissions.  In a nice bit of editing, the filmmakers cut back and forth from the minister's bullying to the bovine faces of his aides, stuffing their mouths with food as the fate of the Maldives (and other nations immediately threatened by climate change impacts) is discarded.

The documentary also eavesdrops on Nasheed's discussion with aides and thereby reveals, among other things, that all of them are astute enough to realize that, as a tiny nation of no particular geopolitical significance, their best hope for influencing the larger world's response to the climate crisis is to take the moral high road and to be creative, even outlandish, in publicizing their predicament.  Hence the underwater cabinet meeting Nasheed convened six weeks before Copenhagen, which generated positive media coverage the world over.  Hence as well Nasheed's announcement two weeks later that The Maldives would become "climate neutral" by 2010, the first nation in the world to do so.  (Thus we see Nasheed climb atop the roof of the presidential house to help install solar panels—one means of shifting the nation from oil to solar power.  Plans called for off-setting remaining fossil fuel consumption by subsidizing an equivalent amount of tree-planting and other climate friendly actions at home and abroad.)  Nor was Nasheed shy about pricking the conscience of the outside world.  "We know that the Maldives going carbon neutral will not save us from annihilation," Nasheed says during a pre-Copenhagen trip to London to urge British politicians and voters to take more aggressive action against climate change.  "But at least we will die having done the right thing."

What's remarkable, and in retrospect poignant, is that Nasheed appears to have harbored genuine hope that the Copenhagen climate summit would produce a real breakthrough.  Truth is, a lot of us felt that way, and not just for sentimental reasons.  The election of Barack Obama as president of the United States the year before had removed one colossal obstacle:  the George W. Bush administration, which had been actively hostile to mandatory emissions reductions during its eight years in power.  By contrast, Obama had singled out "a planet in peril" during his victory speech on Election Night 2008 as one of the three major crises he would confront in the White House.  A few weeks later, his inclusion of billions of dollars for energy efficiency and renewable energy in his economic stimulus package indicated he intended to follow through on that pledge.  What's more, it appeared that the US and China, the world's two climate change superpowers, might at last be transcending their stand-off over who should cut emissions first and by how much. As I reported in Vanity Fair a month before Copenhagen, Obama had sanctioned months of back-channel negotiations with top Chinese officials that now had culminated in an agreement that both nations would reduce emissions. 

Of course, it didn't work out that way in Copenhagen. Obama arrived at the end of the summit and, clearly suffering from jet lag, gave one of the worst speeches of his career.  His tone was flat and bordered on lecturing, while his content was almost insulting to an international audience.  For while Obama declared that the US would promise to cut emissions by 17 percent by 2020, international observers recognized that this number was based on blatantly moving the goalposts. For decades, the international community had measured emissions reductions from a baseline of 1990. By that standard, the US was really offering a mere 4 percent reduction; only by substituting a baseline of 2005 could the Obama administration arrive at its 17 percent figure. It was like promising to kick a 50 yard field goal from the 20 yard line.

None of this is mentioned in The Island President, which instead lays the blame for Copenhagen's shortcomings mainly on China.  Not without reason, it must be said.  China dragged its feet throughout the summit, resisting calls to accept even long-term limits to its emissions and pressuring poor nations to toe its diplomatic line or risk the loss of development aid. Ed Milliband, the climate secretary of Great Britain, later wrote in The Guardian that China had sabotaged the summit.  In a late night meeting in the summit's final hours attended by the heads of government or state from the world's biggest polluters, Milliband wrote, China had refused to accept what Obama and European leaders saw as a grand compromise:  the rich industrial nations would cut emissions by 80 percent by 2050 while the world as a whole—including China and other emerging economies—would cut emissions by 50 percent by 2050. The problem was, this formula would have imposed larger per capita emissions cuts on China, India and other developing nations than it imposed on the rich industrial nations whose past emissions had caused global warming in the first place.  This, China would never accept.

The Island President does not show this pivotal meeting, presumably because Nasheed—the filmmakers' ticket inside—was not invited to attend it.  But Nasheed did support the proposal.  Indeed, so desperate was he for some kind of deal that he also endorsed the much weaker alternative the big powers subsequently settled on.  This, the briefly ballyhooed Copenhagen Accord, was a far cry from what science said was needed to save civilization, much less to save The Maldives.  Contrary to early news reports, the accord did not pledge to limit temperature rise to 2 C over pre-industrial levels; it merely "recognize[d] the scientific view" that the increase should be kept to 2 C.  Nor did the accord do much to bring this result about.  It neither enumerated nor prescribed binding limits on emissions; it only committed both developed and developing nations to "take action" to "achiev[e] the peaking of global and national emissions as soon as possible…."  Adding insult to injury, the big powers presented the accord to the rest of the governments in Copenhagen in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion.  No surprise, then, that the full summit explicitly declined to approve the Copenhagen Accord, voting instead merely to "take note" of it.

Nevertheless, near the end of The Island President we see Nasheed smiling as he telephones his mother while being driven to the airport to return home.  In the translation at the bottom of the screen, he tells her with evident pleasure that the meeting has yielded an agreement.  Fair enough.  He was exhausted, and most boys, even grown ones, like to impress their mothers with their accomplishments.  But neither science nor politics has been kind to Nasheed's upbeat assessment in the years since. 

The world's greenhouse gas emissions rose to record levels in 2010, despite the overhang of widespread economic stagnation.  Ice sheets continued melting. Record floods left 14 million people homeless in Pakistan and record heat in Russia led the government to halt grain exports, spooking global markets and giving rise to price spikes that helped provoke food riots in a dozen countries.  The year 2011 brought even more extreme weather, with Texas suffering the worst one-year drought in its history and the hottest summer in the entire nation's history, even as Governor Rick Perry, like all Republican presidential candidates, continued to insist there was no such thing as man-made global warming. 

And in an ominous foreshadowing of the Maldives' potential fate, in March 2012 the government of Kiribati announced it was planning to evacuate its inhabitants before rising seas completely inundated the island nation.  Like the Maldives, Kiribati is a string of low-lying tropical islands, but located in the Pacific Ocean, about 1,000 miles south of Hawaii. Anote Tong, the president of Kirabati, told the (London) Telegraph he was attempting to buy 5,000 acres of land on Fiji where his countrymen could resettle, adding that the international community should provide financial aid to deal with "the needs of countries like Kiribati."

Meanwhile, the two international climate negotiations that followed the Copenhagen summit—in 2010 in Cancun, Mexico, and in 2011 in Durban, South Africa—made little more progress than Copenhagen had, and for the same basic reason:  neither the US nor China was willing to reduce its emissions anytime soon.  Astonishingly, the agreement reached in Durban—no country would be obliged to cut emissions until 2020—will, if left unchanged, guarantee the world will fail to limit temperature rise to 2 C, the level even the Copenhagen Accord acknowledged would cause "dangerous" climate change.

And so, for the sake of humanity and especially the two billion people around the world under the age of 30 who will spend their lives coping with climate change, the Durban agreement must not stand.  It must be superseded by an agreement that respects science and the planet that makes our civilization possible. As I wrote in The Nation at the time,

The disaster in Durban makes it clearer than ever that politicians will not save us from the fast-approaching train wreck of irreversible climate change. Salvation must come instead from the bottom up: from extending the victories citizen activism has already won, including the defeat of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and the de facto moratorium on new coal-fired power plants in the United States. If people of good will want to halt this train before it’s too late, we can’t leave it to the engineers. More and more of us will have to invade the engineer’s compartment, take over the controls of the train ourselves and steer a path back to life.

Few have been more steadfast and creative in the fight against climate change than Mohammed Nasheed.  Which makes the brutal coup that deposed him all the more deplorable.  All of us, not just the citizens of The Maldives, need leaders like Nasheed on the global scene, pushing the limits of what is supposedly realistic, taking risks and above all inspiring people to rise up and demand real change before it is too late.  Despair is a constant temptation in the climate fight, but Nasheed, like Mandela before him, has no patience for such self-defeatism.  As he affirms at the end of The Island President, referring directly to the Maldives' struggle against sea level rise but more broadly to all humanity's challenge, "We can't just disappear.  We have to survive.  And we have to do whatever it takes to make that real."


Transient


The Island President
screening and this essay are presented as part of the Film Society’s Global Threats Film Series, made possible with support from the San Francisco–based Skoll Global Threats Fund.

Mark Hertsgaard has covered climate change since 1989 for outlets ranging from The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Time to NPR, L'espresso and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent.  A Fellow of the New America Foundation, he is the author of six books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including, HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, released in paperback this month.

www.markhertsgaard.com
mark@markhertsgaard.com

© 2012 Mark Hertsgaard

Her Body, Her Self!

BY MICHELLE TEA

Erin Markey puts on R. Kelly’s “Pregnant,” which if you don’t know it, is a really creepy and absurd song where the R. croons “Gurl, I wanna get you pregnant” again and again in that melodramatic R&B way, and then Erin is lip-synching to it in black lipstick, and then she pulls her hair out of her ponytail and it’s all wild and because she is a legitimate actress she can keep a straight face while she does this, make her wide eyes wider, sort of sexy and intense. It’s on YouTube, part of her Just a Little Something with Erin Markey series. Another episode has her gyrating insanely in a mirror in her pajamas to Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.” Watching these, I think: This is like harm reduction treatment for Erin Markey, like her brain is so full-up with constant bananas hilarity and weirdness she has to create these quickie videos to let out a little steam. Like the tiny earthquakes that give us a tremble so the big one doesn’t totally destroy us—that’s Erin Markey. What is it like inside her brain? Let’s talk about it.

Puppy Love: A Stripper’s Tail is a sex work narrative, but in the form of a musical. The problem with most sex work narratives is that they are not musicals, and I guess by that I mean, they don’t innovate on a story that we’ve now heard a lot, a story that doesn’t really change up all that much. But Erin brings into it her voices, her singular artistic voice of course, but also her singing voice which is really good. Like, she could go on American Idol or something. The phrase She can really belt it out is sort of disturbing if you think about it, so let’s use it. It sounds like something deep inside Markey is being cranked when she sings. She practically unhinges her jaw to let the sound spill out—more on this later. In Puppy Love she erects a pole in the middle of the stage, she swirls her body around it, you can see how being a stripper could be fun, like being a fairy, and you would like to—I would like to—go to a strip bar and watch girls that look like Erin spin themselves about such a pole, ribboned like maypoles. Once, in Las Vegas, I took ecstasy and went to a strip club and sat at a platform the size of a dining room table and watched girl after girl climb the pole with the skin of their thighs and slowly undulate back down. Mesmerized, I watched for hours, drinking water from a giant gallon bottle I managed to smuggle inside. Once a stripper held out her arm to me so that I might peel her long, leopard-spotted gloves from her arms. Her skin smelled like a candy tree and was poreless as a dolphin’s.

In Puppy Love Erin is a stripper and she falls in love with another stripper. In Puppy Love Erin is female, so she has this body you spin around poles for cash, but she’s queer so she sees through it too. It’s like you’re God, being queer in such a situation, you’re the omniscient narrator—you’re the girl who has the body and the lez who wants the other girl’s body and you see how the whole thing is so stupid and cheesy and pre-fabricated, because you’re a feminist, duh, but you see how it works too, how it’s powerful, and it’s even more powerful—the allure of it—when you have all that knowledge and you are the one you’re lusting after, when you can let all of it in, the gross and the cute, the hardscrabble realness and the sillyness, the artifice. Your brain is engaged, and your aesthetic senses, but so is that lazy part, the lizard brain that’s like, I don’t want to think so much, I just want to space out and watch this girl spin around the pole so slow it’s like she’s turning over in bed, just waking up from a dream.

Erin Markey has a soft spot for preciousness. It’s like she wants to cuddle it and destroy it, kill it, eat it and then, for our pleasure, become it. Families are precious. Babies are precious. We are all precious, our bodies and our longings. It’s sort of pathetic, we are, and also poignant, it depends on the angle. Erin Markey hits all the angles. Once I watched her walk onto a stage naked and somber. She began to talk about the history of feminist performance art. This is maybe a little dry for Erin, but the thing is, you know she is very well-versed on the history of performance art. No matter how bonkers her work gets, how off the rails she allows herself to fly, there is always a heavy intellect behind the wheel, and I want to know what she knows, so I’m listening close. She’s talking about Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll, the classic ’70s piece where the artist pulls from her vagina a long scroll of paper and reads from it. Performance theorist Jeanie Forte said it was as if Carolee’s vag itself was speaking about sexism, it’s an amazing piece. The writer Laurie Weeks calls the vagina nature’s little backpack. I mean, it’s such a cool contraption, you can smuggle drugs in it, have a baby, have sex, duh, hold onto a tampon, famously there are women who can shoot ping pong balls from theirs (fun!) and open a bottle of beer or, sadly, smoke a cigarette. So much activity from a site that the larger world—don’t make me say patriarchy—sort of thinks as a void, maybe a fanged void but a void nonetheless. Makes me think of Jonathan Lethem’s As She Crawled Across the Table, and the awesome void Lack which contained everything. Lack is sort of male in the book but whatever, that’s what happens. We know Lack is a girl and is chock full, a treasure chest.

Did Erin Markey do a cover of Interior Scroll that night? She pulled a spiral of paper from her vagina and proceeded to proclaim, in a loud, proud Munchinkinland accent, the Munchkin’s welcome to Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. A Fluxus happening for our time, when everything is a mash-up, everything is known, all information available, all references everyone’s references. The shock of it was extreme and extremely funny. Later she came out dressed like a Dickensian orphan and took a collection by passing around a baby doll and making people place their money in its hollowed-out genitals.

Some things that Erin Markey has said in interviews are, “Our bodies are all we have.” A female will always know how quickly she can be reduced to that, but there is an inverse power in this—our bodies are all we have, what excellent, beautiful monsters we can be! She has also said, “I’ve got a soft spot for people with big dreams.” It shows. The Dardy Family Home Movies by Steven Sondheim by Erin Markey is based loosely on her own childhood. The paradox for queers bumped out of the whole American Dream thing is that, though for the most part the culture discourages us from taking that path as adults, we all come from some kind of family. There is a tenderness in Erin’s portrayal of Dardy family matriarch Molly Dardy. Her desires are simple enough to be cliché, derided—a family, a happy American family. And they are simple enough to be fair enough—a family, a happy, American family, is that really so much to ask for? The sweetness of the plain desire and the darker realness of the compound psyches that build a family—the undercurrents of ignored and denied energies, of the banished negative—this forms the force field that Erin steps into, jaw unhinged.

Since we only have our bodies, let’s talk about Erin’s. She is beautiful, and there is something very terrifying about the way she is beautiful. Her hair is too lustrous. Is it a wig? No, that’s just her long, incredibly thick hair. Her face is angular; at certain angles her face falls off the edge of her cheekbone like a cliff. Her eyes are huge. She can either look alluring, or like she’s going to pull open her jaw with both hands and crack her head open to show you the monster beneath. And you’d be like—yes! I had a feeling that was in there! It is fortunate for Erin, an artist interested in investigating and embodying both the innocence and horror in being alive, that her visage can flitter so seamlessly between a classic beauty and something more primordial. I was lucky enough to be in New York during the brief run of Green Eyes, a lost Tennessee Williams play that was staged in a very small hotel room in an actual hotel, the Hudson. Two sets of folding chairs, 14 total, were arranged against a wall, facing the bed. We were right there. The play is about a couple, just married, on a honeymoon in New Orleans. The man is an alcoholic soldier, the woman is maybe cheating on him, maybe fucking with him—well, either way she is fucking with him, and she is Erin and in this role as a cruel, sexed-up, manipulative new bride she is lightning. The play is violent, the couple, physical, and you’re in the room with them, practically on top of them. Eventually, Erin will lock eyes with you, and it’s like a tiger bound into the room and you’re in its stare now, will be in its jaws in moments. I forgot to breathe when Erin looked at me, she crackles. The play got stupendous reviews, critics called her scary, observed that she had seemingly no boundaries. That’s part of the high-wire act of watching her—how far will she take it? She seems capable of taking it awfully far. And what does that mean for you, in the audience? Who is the one netless one, exactly? But she does have boundaries.

She got rid of a dead-dog storyline embedded in Puppy Love because it was “too weird.” I love that. Artists knowing their limitations is just as exciting as limitations being pushed—it creates this boundaried chamber where the work can bounce around, where it can grow to the size of its tank and be done. Once I saw a performance artist in a Buddhist space enact a performance that involved him jerking off his elbow, lighting up a cigarette, smoking it with a pair of cooking tongs while making jokes about the Holocaust, then using a neti pot and drinking the neti pot water. Maybe he gargled with it and sang—I don’t remember, like everyone else in the audience I had left my body in horror. The beauty and value of Erin as a performer is that there are limits on where she will go, and if they are not visible to us, the audience, how much more thrilling, to remain on that edge in her safe, manipulative hands. It’s not a free-for-all, there’s a point here—art, thought, hilarity, surprise, something poignant, something vulnerable, a darkness and then something ridiculous. Erin Markey is a carnival ride, one operated by a recent ex-con whose facial tattoo hasn’t fully healed yet.

Erin performs a lot at a regular event at Joe’s Pub in New York City called Our Hit Parade, where performers do covers of that week’s top ten songs. You can watch videos of it on the Internet and again get a feeling for what it feels like to be in proximity to Erin Markey in action. She sings Bruno Mars’ codependency ballad "Grenade" in a sports swimsuit, her hair in a whatever ponytail, her neck rippling with the storm of her voice running through it. The lyrics are melodramatic—I’d catch a grenade for ya / Throw my hand on a blade for ya / I’d jump in front of a train for ya—but in Erin’s muscular clutch they get real creepy real fast. That she weaves a bit of “The Wind Beneath My Wings” makes it even creepier, a stalker torch song. But the real performance is in Erin’s face, the sneer of her lips, the eyes that grow huger . . . and huger . . . ! She bends over with the effort of the singing but doesn’t break a sweat. She cracks a joke and leaves the stage. In another act she sings Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” with a fake pregnancy and fake black eye. Wiz Khalifa’s blackout anthem “No Sleep” is performed as that weirdo little boy orphan with a smudged-up face, suspenders and all her hair tucked under a scrappy beanie. Her voice takes on a tinny, little kid timbre: The bitches, the hotel, the weed is all free! Then she passes around the baby for people to put money in. The drinks is on me! A gang of other disturbing fake little boys with things hanging out of their pants suddenly descend upon the audience grabbing at their money.

Her body, her self! Erin Markey is a maniac who will only keep pushing herself in some sort of breakneck direction, trawling the culture for absurdity and pulling a lot of pathos, sarcasm, sincerity, darkness and joy into her net along the way. Her range is bonkers, able to take on Tennessee Williams, her mother, her younger self, a lollipop kid. I think she is what they call in the biz a triple threat. The night is young, and she lives in the city that doesn’t sleep.


Michelle Tea is the artistic director of Radar Productions and cofounder of the legendary and long-running Sister Spit. Tea has published five novels, a book of poetry, numerous short stories, hundreds of Bay Area newspaper articles and has edited several anthologies on fashion, class, queer writing and personal narrative. Her novel Valencia won the 2000 Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction, a San Francisco Bay Guardian Goldie Award for literature and the prestigious Rona Jaffe Foundation award for early-career female writers.

The San Francisco Film Society’s KinoTek programming stream presents nontraditional, cross-platform and emergent media. Eight KinoTek programs will be presented throughout 2011 and 2012, each featuring the work of an artist or practice that challenges the boundaries of screen-based art. KinoTek is supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Phyllis C. Wattis Foundation.