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SLIFF 2011: Day 7

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 16, 2011 - We Were Here, Directed by David Weissman, U.S. | 90 minutes, 6:30 p.m. Nov. 17, Tivoli

In the early 1980s, AIDS transformed San Francisco's gay community from an lively oasis of acceptance to an ongoing death vigil.

At that time, little was known about why gay men were suddenly struck by rare cancers and other painful, usually fatal conditions. "We Were Here," to be shown Thursday night as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival, explores the heroic ways in which the gay and lesbian community responded to the epidemic.

Filmmaker David Weissman, who lost many friends to AIDS, was inspired to chronicle the saga by a boyfriend who was too young to witness the events of the early '80s.

-- Reviewed by Nancy Fowler | Beacon arts reporter

Better This World

Directed by Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway
98 minutes | U.S.
7 p.m. at Webster University

David McCay and Bradley Crowder, the main subjects of "Better This World," were a couple of idealistic, naive, left-leaning young men from Texas who wanted to save the world. They were convinced by a charismatic Southern activist that one way to do it was to join in anti-war demonstrations at the 1988 Republican National Convention in the Twin Cities. After a series of events that unfold dramatically in the documentary, they were arrested in Minnesota for being in possession of Molotov cocktails. The explosives, the FBI charged, were intended to be used to destroy unspecified targets and, perhaps, to kill people.

The directors skillfully weave together amateur film and video footage; extensive interviews with the principals, their families and FBI agents; news clips, and a minimal amount of restaged action to tell the story of how McCay and Crowder got to that pivotal point in their lives and what has happened to them since them. The story is told with suspense and a strong sense of the humanity of the people involved.

The central question is how far should the government go in using informants to spy on dissident groups -- what if the informants actually helped create the groups, and had a hand in provoking its members into risky and perhaps violent tactics? In the wake of 9/11, the filmmakers suggest, the answer to that question has changed, to the detriment of freedom in America.

- Reviewed by Harper Barnes | Special to the Beacon

To Be Heard

Directed by Amy Sultan, Roland Legiardi-Laura, Edwin Martinez and Deborah Shaffer
87 minutes | U.S.
7:15 p.m. at the Tivoli

In this compelling documentary, high school students in the Bronx are encouraged to participate in a special poetry workshop that asks them to write about their lives, thoughts and feelings. Two girls and a boy, all gifted writers, all being raised by single mothers, become so close and so appreciative of each others writings, they become close friends. They call themselves "the Tripod."

In "To Be Heard," four filmmakers follow four years in the lives of the Tripod. The term "at risk" may be overused, but it certainly is appropriate to the lives of these young people, who are always in danger of falling prey to the poverty, violence and lack of opportunity that characterize their surroundings. All are determined to rise above their economic backgrounds while remaining true to their cultural and racial heritage.

There are successes and failures in each of their lives. In the meantime, it is fascinating and deeply rewarding to observe their writing grow from the four-beat rap that surrounds them into long, intricate, beautifully constructed, breath-molded poetic lines in the tradition of New York poets Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka.

"To Be Heard" is a convincing look at how poetry and other arts can influence lives for the better. And it is gratifying, in a society that seems to devalue the work of public school teachers, to see a film that shows a group of talented and committed teachers who work hard to inspire their students to succeed.

- Reviewed by Harper Barnes | Special to the Beacon

Eames: The Architect & the Painter

Directed by Jason Cohn & Bill Jersey, U.S. | 82 minutes
7:30 p.m. Nov. 17, Steinberg Hall auditorium, Washington University

In 1968 Charles and Ray Eames created a movie called "Powers of Ten." It opened close on a couple on a picnic by Lake Michigan and slowly, then increasing with dizzying speed, moved away from them, and out-out-out into space, at a rate of one power of 10 every 10 seconds.

"Powers of Ten" is familiar to millions of people, one of the many striking, affecting works of art and product that drove the fame and influence of the Eameses by powers of 10, too. Born in 1907, Charles Ormond Eames was a native to St. Louis, and of a distinguished architectural family. His uncle, William Sylvester Eames, was a partner in the firm of Eames and Young. The firm was responsible for the warehouses of Cupples Station, among other public St. Louis landmarks, and for fine residential buildings in neighborhoods of substance.

Charles Eames attended the Washington University School of Architecture, where he butted heads with academia. Later he went to the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., which was much more suitable to his talents and personality. He was enormously charismatic and movie star handsome. He became an embodiment of modernism and movement forward.

Bernice Alexandra Kaiser Eames, called Ray, was born in Sacramento in 1912. She was a somewhat equal partner in the husband and wife Eames team, although like many extraordinarily talented women in a marriage with extraordinarily talented men she frequently got the short end of the stick. She set the real and metaphorical tables for Charles. He was the first among equals, and if the movie's judgment is correct, his narcissism demanded he sit at the head of that table and allowed Ray to do the serving and clearing. The issue of "credit" -- who got it and who did not, both in the marriage and in the world of the office among colleagues -- streaks throughout the movie.

It is titled "Eames: The Architect and the Painter." Charles Eames was an established architect before he met Ray Eames. She had left the west coast for the abstract expressionist Valhalla of New York and studied in the atelier of Hans Hoffman. Although she is not celebrated for her paintings, she is remembered for exhibiting the characteristics of painterly discipline in her sense of balance and perspective and less evident qualities such as rightness and the sublime. The narrator tells us that Charles didn't know from color, but Ray saw everything as a painting and maintained a fastidious attention to detail.

As the film makes its progress through their lives, together and as individuals, the viewer is struck by the fact that while there were discreet accomplishments of enormous consequence -- the films, the molded plywood splint that went to war, that object-of-envy "Eames" chair, the House of Cards and their own house in Pacific Palisades (Case Study House No. 8), their work for corporations such as IBM -- all this flowed as if through a funnel to produce a gigantic, monumental work of art which can be stamped EAMES.

It is fascinating to hear voices of men and women who worked with them at 901 Washington Blvd. in Venice, Calif., some of them thoughtful, at least one annoyingly bombastic. The observations of critics and colleagues who saw the development of this thing history has come to designate generically as Eames are telling and psychologically informative.

The world the Eameses created -- so happy in so many ways, so compelling, so smart, so stimulating, so essentially quirky and beautiful -- is magnetic and influential. Anyone with a filament of aesthetic ambitions or pretentions would want to inhabit it and to swing to its rhythms. This world is quicksilvery, however, and so complex it defies description. Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey did a good job of wrestling this aesthetic hydra to the ground, with no loss of heads.

I found "The Architect and the Painter" absorbing indeed, a don't-miss picture for any student or fan of this explosive movement we call modernism.

It certainly was a don't-miss picture for me. On Aug. 21, 1978, I was all set to visit with Charles Eames and to interview him at the St. Louis Art Museum. I was about to leave for the appointment when the phone rang.

"Don't come," I was told. Charles Eames had died.

Ten years later, to the day, so did the other Eames, Ray.

-- Reviewed by Robert W. Duffy, Beacon associate editor

Nov. 17


Shorts 7: Drama 2 5 p.m.

We Were Here 6:30 p.m.

To be Heard 7:15 p.m.

Leave it on the Floor 8:30 p.m.

Peace 9:30 p.m.

Plaza Frontenac

Lost Airmen of Buchenwald 1 p.m.

The Good Doctor 2:30 p.m.

Corpo Celeste 4:30 p.m.

Hospitality 4:30

Restoration 7 p.m.

Young Goethe in Love 7:15 p.m.

Before Your Eyes 9:15 p.m.

Headhunters 9:30 p.m.

Webster University

Better this World 7 p.m.

Showcase Shorts 2 9:30 p.m.

Washington University (Steinberg)

Eames 7:30 p.m.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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