Review: ‘Water Under The Bridge’ by Katie Wheeler-Dubin and Mila Puccini (***1/2)

by Charles Kruger
Rating: ***1/2

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In only six years, the literary reading series Quiet Lightning has become a San Francisco tradition. Founded by a college dropout transplant from Savannah (Evan Karp), the now-locally-famous “literary mixtape” has struck over ninety times in an impressive variety of San Francisco locales, from the caves at Sutro Baths, to the dive bars of the mission, to the elegance of the Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park.

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First a reading series, then a literary non-profit, Quiet Lightning has branched out (under the influence of Karp’s whirling dervish energy) into literary contests, the publication of chap books, and now the production of a feature length documentary, by filmmakers Katie Wheeler-Dubin and Mila Puccini.

Quiet Lightning founder Evan Karp. Photo Credit: Ian Tuttle.

Quiet Lightning founder Evan Karp. Photo Credit: Ian Tuttle.

Billed as an “experimental portrait of San Francisco,” the film is similar in format to the reading series. Quiet Lightning performances typically include a set of readings by writers presented back-to-back with no commentary or supporting material of any sort — just one person after another speaking and departing.

For the film, a series of interviews is presented in a similar back-to-back fashion. Each interviewee (or an occasional small group) speaks about their lives in San Francisco for a few minutes. The stories reveal each interviewee’s personal relationship with the city. As with the reading series, the performers were sought out by a submission process. Rather than decide in advance who they would interview (e.g., politicians, celebrities, community leaders, particular professions), the filmmakers cast a wide net for potential interviewees via Craigslist, postcards left around town, solicitations at Quiet Lightning events, and random encounters.

Barber Vladimir Shteynberg is interviewed in his Richmond shop.

Barber Vladimir Shteynberg is interviewed in his Richmond shop.

The resulting interviews range from a Russian barber in his shop in the Richmond to a Mission bookstore owner to a young worker with an interest in “cleaning up the homeless,” and a homeless couple. Each interview is conducted in a different city locale, appropriate to the theme of the interview.

We find ourselves inside many iconic images from the interior of an upscale Victorian, to a trolley car, to a mural-decorated alley in the Mission, to a parking lot that is home to the homeless.

In each case, the focus of the interview reveals how the speakers have been formed by their experience of San Francisco. Thus, each participant reveals not only themselves, but the city under whose influence they have blossomed as unique human flowers. The implication (very persuasive) is that the city makes its people as much as its people make the city. City and citizens are one.

Dubin-Wheeler and Puccini avoid the pitfall of creating nothing more than a series of talking heads by using a variety of visual variation for each interview. First are the interesting and iconic San Francisco settings. But there is more than that. Often the interview is heard in voice over while the interviewee is filmed doing something quite different: giving a haircut, staring out a hospital window, riding a bus. They never just sit and talk into the camera. They might be eating a family meal, or examining books in a warehouse.

Directors Katie Wheeler-Dubin + Mila Puccini at the debut screening of "Water Under The Bridge." Photo Credit: Quiet Lightning

Directors Katie Wheeler-Dubin + Mila Puccini at the debut screening of “Water Under The Bridge.” Photo Credit: Quiet Lightning

Also influential is the unseen and unheard presence of the two filmmakers, who conducted the interviews while filming. Although their voices are not heard, clearly they were engaged and engaging, as each of the subjects seems completely relaxed and voluble.

Adobe Books founder Andrew McKinley.

Adobe Books founder Andrew McKinley.

All of the folks hold our interest, but a few stand out, especially Andrew McKinley, the charismatic and reflective founder of Adobe Books, who is interviewed in his book warehouse as he recalls years of leadership and engagement with the city’s literary community. This sequence also incorporates archival footage of events at Adobe Books over the years, helping to give the film a strong sense of history. Also thought provoking is an interview with a young native San Franciscan who means well but seems clueless in her ambition to “clean up the homeless,” contrasted with that of a homeless couple struggling to survive on the streets. In a very moving sequence, filmmaker Katie Dubin-Wheeler becomes an interviewee, recalling the passing of her mother while she was a student at San Francisco State. The interview is filmed in the hospital where her mother died, and includes images of corridors and windows and hospital which are deeply evocative of sorrow, and the passage of time, and the fragility of life.

An interesting, unobtrusive, droning score by Raphael Villet helps to tie everything together. There is also a quite lovely montage of city locations featuring dancer Jose Abad which is particularly effective.

Dance Jose Abad performs in a lovely city montage sequence in "Water Under The Bridge."

Dance Jose Abad performs in a lovely city montage sequence in “Water Under The Bridge.”

Overall, this is a timely, moving, and engaging film about San Francisco and San Franciscans that beautifully reflects the spirit of our city, its citizens, and the phenomenon that is Quiet Lightning.

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“Water Under the Bridge,” a film by Katie Wheeler-Dubin and Mila Puccini, produced by Quiet Lightning, Evan Karp, and Katie Wheeler-Dubin. Director of Photography: Mila Puccini. Drone Camera: Elliot Ortiz. Music by: Raphael Villet. Sound Post Production: Jamie Whalen. 1991 footage by Eric Ernest Johnson. NY footage by Shaun Wagner. Artwork by: Otis Mahach.

Interviewees and Performers In Order of Appearance: 

Roy Pitts, Vivian Fu, Siavash Fahimi, Andrew McKinley, Edissa Nicolas, Alison Dennis, Tiana Giacalone, Melissa and Jason Goodman, Winnie Chang, Mason Jairo Olaya-Smith, Mickey Costello, Dieudonne Brou, Jonathan Villet, Fiona McDougall, Raphael Villet, Katie Wheeler-Dubin, Jose Abad, Vladimir Steyenberg. 
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Review: ‘Out of the Woods: A Magical Realist Drama’ by Antero Alli (***)

outby Charles Kruger
Rating: *****

Recently, an enthusiastic audience of friends and fans attended the premier of Antero Alli’s newest film, “Out of the Woods,” at Humanist Hall in Oakland. Mr. Alli, a beloved Bay area writer of books on such arcana as astrology, magick, and consciousness, filmmaker, and experimental theatre impressario and his wife, composer and singer Sylvi Alli, present this film (for which Sylvi Alli composed the score) as their parting shot before moving from Berkeley to Portland. The audience who attended on this bittersweet occasion had no reason to be disappointed!

“Out of the Woods” is a haunting, visually engaging, thematically intriguing and dramatically exciting film. It is beautifully photographed, well-edited, and finely acted.

Charlie (Malachi Maynard) is a quiet spoken, shy young man, living with his girlfriend, Bonnie (Alicia Ivanhoe), in San Francisco. Having grown up in rural California, among the redwoods, Charlie feels stifled and cramped by city life. He tells Bonnie he longs to spend time in the forest, that he misses the nature spirits. In a beautifully realized sequence (fantasy? dream? memory?) we see Charlie as a boy among the trees, fully engaged with the spirits, one in particular. When Charlie announces his decision to go back alone to the woods, we are prepared to expect the unexpected.

Alone in the forest, Charlie seems to be liberated, running wildly through the brush, haunted and companioned by the nature spirits he has missed so badly, including the spirit remembered from his childhood, identified in the credits as “Sylvani, a Tree Spirit” (Sylvi Alli). Taking a fall, he injures his head and awakens an amnesiac. Shortly after, he is found and cared for by the eccentric “Man of God” (a perfectly cast Luka Dziubyna), who first suspects Charlie of being a zombie, but then relents as he discoveres that Charlie’s amnesia has given him the special power of reading minds.

It is one of the pleasures of this film that the discovery of Charlie’s power does not seem hokey or unbelievable. One reason for that is Malachi Maynard’s unusual appearance, and haunted, other worldly manner. His elfish good looks and oddball vulnerability are perfectly suited to his role. Also, the haunting sequences with the spirits that proceed Charlie’s transformation prepare us to accept the supernatural. We might find ourselves asking whether the amnesiac Charlie is indeed the boy who came to the forest, or if he has become possessed by one of the nature spirits.

What follows is an exploration of what becomes of Charlie now that he has this mysterious power. He soon encounters a show business promoter, Frank Nation (an excellent Andrew Gurevich) and his kind-hearted girlfriend, Lorraine Bender (Robin Coomer) who, when he demonstrates his mind reading ability, anticipate a financial goldmine if Charlie (renamed Bill Shiner by his new manager) can be taught to perform onstage.

The story of Bill Shiner’s rise to fame and his subsequent sudden retirement is bookended with the conceit that a young documentary filmmaker wants to learn the explanation of Shiner’s disappearance from the stage. He has found the elderly man (played very effectively by a non-actor, Mick Roche), and interviews him. The older Charlie has recovered his memory, and is living as a hermit.  Why is he a hermit? What became of his powers? What does the story have to do with the tree spirit Sylvani? And what of his girlfriend, Bonnie, with whom he was in love?

I will not answer the questions with spoilers, but will say that the answers to these questions are intriguingly and satisfactorily told in a lovely film that explores themes of artistry and talent, the alienating effects of being inspired by the muse, and the rewards that come with that as well.

In addition to Alli’s excellent cinematography and the pleasure of several fine performances, the film employs an enchanting and memorable score composed and sung by Sylvi Alli and others.

“Out of the Woods” will have its San Francisco premiere at The Lost Church on October 3rd. Film buffs who wish to support independent, local talent will find their attendance to be well worth the effort. 

For further information click here.

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Cast:

Charlie Atterbury (as an old man): Mick Roche. The Filmmaker: Nathan Rosquist. Sylvani The  Tree Spirit: Sylvi Alli.  Young Charlie/Bill Shiner: Malachi Maynard. Bonnie Madison: Alicia Ivanhoe. Frank Nation, Talent Agent: Andrew Gurevich. Lorraine Bender, Talent Scout: Robin Coomer. Man of God: Luka Dziubyana. Bonnie’s Grandmother: Barbara Martin. The Heckler: Andrew Reichart. Boy Charlie: Briar Haslam.

Credits:

Costumes by Sylvi Alli, Sagah Sylisms Al-Kassab, and Sam Breach.
Production Assistants: Alaska Yamada, Andrew Reichart, Jennifer Bruce.
Production Manager, Jennifer Bruce. CGI/Digital FX by Michael McWhirter.
Music by Sylvi Alli, Artemesia Black, Science of Deduction, Shake Well,
Simeon Soul Charger, and Michelle Belrose. Edited by Christopher Odell.
Cinematographer: Antero Alli. Associate Producers: Tara Candoli, Steve Dean.
Executive Producer Vertical Pool Productions. Written & directed by Antero Alli.
“Out of the Woods” is an Underground Non-Union Production.
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