Old and new: Asia Argento, in Scarlet Diva, is on full display in YBCA's new series.

Freak Flag Flying at YBCA

Dennis Harvey February 17, 2010

Because it’s a place where contemporary visual art, pop culture themes, live performance of myriad disciplines and recorded media comingle, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts has sustained a major place in San Francisco’s cultural landscape since 1993—yet perhaps without quite receiving the due it would have had its mission been narrower and more easily defined.

That resistance to precise classification is, actually, much of what we like about YBCA. In the film/video department alone, longtime curator Joel Shepard has carved out a unique Bay Area programmatic niche that can encompass retrospectives of important but little-seen current international fiction and documentary directors alongside shows that reflect a distinct fondness for for vintage exploitation, subcultural artifacts and cinematic “outsider art.”

All three of the latter are on display in the venue’s new series “Freaks, Punks, Skanks and Cranks,” a five-parter (playing Feb. 18-27, with some programs repeating) united only by their reflecting personalities and social/artistic movements well outside the mainstream. Together, they span some five decades of deviant behavior—or at least what was considered such at the time.

There’s a substantial local emphasis here, starting off with a bill (playing three times this Thursday evening) compiling highlights from Joe Rees’ “Underground Forces” series. When punk first broke in S.F., Rees began videotaping the scene, mostly at the three-floor art studio/clubhouse/music venue Target on Van Ness.

He continued in this vein for a decade (through 1988), but YBCA’s “San Francisco Punks” program sticks to the first-wave years, including clips of late ’70s/early ’80s local legends Dead Kennedys, The Mutants, Avengers, Flipper and The Nuns, plus lesser-remembered bands like The Lewd and Noh Mercy (performing their excellent rant “Caucasian Guilt”). There’s also room for a few starry out-of-town bands, from L.A.’s Screamers and Plugz to Iggy Pop and Jim Carroll Band (doing “People Who Died,” what else). Rees will be on hand at each screening.

Out of all the performance art that grew out of S.F.’s punk scene, perhaps none was so famous—or infamous—as Survival Research Labs, Mark Pauline & co.’s anarchic industrial grand guignol of spare-parts-crafted machines that frequently torched and tore each other apart (and spectators too, if they weren’t careful).

These dystopian live robot wars, often staged at secretive locations in order to evade unamused authorities like the Fire Dept., are now the stuff of local mythology. (Though SRL remains active, albeit recently moving its operations to a bigger warehouse space in Petaluma.) The Target Video-presented program playing twice this Saturday, February 20, will reprise some of the earliest performances records of SRL events.

Rewinding one countercultural generation, the series springs an even rarer item in the form of Gold, a 1968 feature by first/lasttime feature directors Bob Levis and Bill Desloge (credited onscreen as “organizers”); it was never released in the U.S. and just briefly opened in London four years later. This high hippie mess, ostensibly set in Gold Rush days, finds an Establishment figure known mostly as The Law (Garry Goodrow, a member of well-known sketch troupe The Committee) attempting to crack down on all the nekkidness and free-lovin’ going on in a Northern Sierra frontier town. The hero is played by Del Close, a major figure in improv comedy who coached just about every famous comic (including many cast members over Saturday Night Live’s entire history) for decades.

Was it all the full-frontal exposure that doomed Gold at the time? (You won’t be surprised when the movie ends with a full-cast skinny dip.) Or its sheer, genial shapelessness? One thing is for sure: You can bet everyone had a great time making this, though they probably don’t remember a thing about it. This is a movie that was surely not intended to be viewed straight.

Moving from the communal to the stubbornly contrary, the “Freaks” series’ last two selections are portraits of individualism not so much rugged as jagged. Daughter of Italian horror maestro Dario, Asia Argento is best known as an actress (an uneven if occasionally remarkable one, with her unhinged turn in Catherine Breillat’s The Last Mistress hard to shake), secondly as a director. She performs both functions in Scarlet Diva, a 2000 roman a clef in which she lets her freak flag fly and then some.

Asia plays Anna Baptista, a trans-Atlantic movie star and nonconformist she makes little effort to separate from our (or at least the Italian press’s) perception of Asia Argento, International Bad Girl. Myriad kinds of drugs, sex, volatile romance, celebrity slumming, self-expression and self-destruction are indulged as the film’s frenetic fly-on-the-wall observations chug along. Yeah, Kristen Stewart thinks she’s so Goth or something…she ought to take some notes in real anti-Hollywood edginess from Diva, which plays Sunday, February 21.

Lastly, there’s To My Great Chagrin, a documentary homage to a figure largely forgotten today: Brother Theodore, German Jewish heir to a manufacturing fortune turned Dachau survivor (family friend Albert Einstein engineered his rescue) turned one of post-WWII America’s most bizarre entertainment successes.

Starting in the late ’40s he honed a nightclub act that was part grand guignol monologue, part existential horror, and all funny—not necessarily to him, but to audiences who found it all a face-slappingly fresh exercise in macabre humor. (Shows had titles like “Recollections of a Madman” and “Blossoms of Evil,” while his shared wisdoms included “The best thing is not to be born—but who is as lucky as that?”)

That sensibility only caught on further with the rise of the Beat Generation, though the former Theo Gottlieb’s popularity began to wane as the way-out became common showbiz currency in the 1960s. Nonetheless, he continued to surface in a bizarre assortment of bit parts and guest appearances almost up to his 2001 demise, from Tom Hanks vehicle The ‘Burbs and numerous David Letterman shows to 1976 Jaws porn spoof Gums (as “Captain Clitoris”) and two gigs voicing Gollum in animated Tolkien adaptations. By his own account, his failures were far greater than his successes—among them were his attempts at being a husband and father, not to mention getting fired from the Broadway smash Don’t Drink the Water for being (as playwright Woody Allen recalls) “wildly inconsistent.”

Jeff Sumerel’s documentary is somewhat frustrating—in attempting to give us “pure” Brother Theodore, he keeps all other interviewees (also including Penn Gilette, Dick Cavett and Harlan Ellison) off-camera, identifying neither them or the myriad vintage clips until closing-credit time. Plus, the director’s tilt tends to emphasize his subject’s bleak outlook such that those who never saw him at length on TV or heard one of his comedy albums won’t understand what was funny about him. Still, To My Great Chagrin fascinates as a flashback to a “stand-up tragedy” sensibility and career like no other.

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