'Medicine for Melancholy' brings a French New Wave sensibility to bear on a very contemporary San Francisco story.

Essential SF: ‘North Beach,’ ‘Medicine For Melancholy’

Michael Fox July 20, 2011

Independent feature filmmaking in San Francisco has been, in the past few decades, a unique hybrid of Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland enthusiasm, D-Day-style planning and grinding sacrifice. “Let’s put on a show!” with good friends, borrowed favors, insufficient money and no sleep. What’s the pot of gold at the end of that rainbow? A host of festival dates—and the satisfaction of surviving.

With only the most rare of exceptions, distributors pretty much limit their scouting of indie features to name talent and New York locations. So indie filmmaking is an extraordinarily intensive and soul-draining labor of love, even in the digital age. The great trick is coming through the process with an hour-and-a-half movie that entertains people other than the cast and crew. If it’s also a work of art, well, that’s an accomplishment.

There are a healthy number of Bay Area features that rate pretty well by that measure. Here are a couple of my favorites that speak to the moment and, I have a hunch, will also stand the test of time.

(Editor’s note: This is the latest in a continuing series of articles compiling the key documentaries and narrative features by Bay Area independent filmmakers. Like any pantheon, Hall of Fame, or “Best of” list, it is a subjective selection, and invites comment and debate.)

North Beach (2000)
Jed Mortenson & Richard Speight, Jr.’s comedy about 20-something singles on the loose starts out like a lot of movies, with the main character awakening from a not-so-bad dream into a flinchingly bright nightmare. Fortunately, North Beach has a lot more on its mind than a) it appears at first blush and b) most of those other flicks.

The erstwhile hero, Tyler (winningly played by Casey Peterson, who also penned the witty, smart screenplay) went home with a 19-year-old stripper last night. He scarcely remembers, but the news has already flashed around the neighborhood and into his girlfriend’s ear. Paige (Jennifer Milmore) has heard Casey’s version of the “she means nothing to me” speech before, we gather, for she angrily kicks him to the curb.

Romantic comedies require a hurdle or two blocking the couple’s path to reconciliation and matrimony, and a stripper certainly qualifies. What sets North Beach apart, in addition to its recognizable (to natives) and well-chosen scenery, is that it’s not about the lovers working around or through an improbable hiccup and living happily ever after.

Nor, thankfully, is it about what most Hollywood comedies and too many indie features deem important, namely, the male lead’s sex life. Frankly, once I got to the age of 25, I needed a film to grapple with higher stakes than if and when the star was going to have sex again.

Tyler is at a crossroads, and North Beach is a semi-realistic and wholly amusing travelogue of his reluctant, tenuous acceptance of adulthood. Tyler thinks he’s simply trying to navigate a predicament (that to us is endearing, embarrassing and entirely recognizable), but he comes to realize, over the course of a long day, that he must sign up for the package deal—growing up, drinking less, taking responsibility and becoming a person who can be counted on.

I remember standing in the back of the Lumiere during S.F. Indiefest in January, 2001, laughing along with a full house of attractive people in their 20s. They recognized themselves in the film—up to a point—but viewed the movie as casual entertainment (a one-night stand, if you will) undeserving of deeper analysis.

I have no hesitation recommending North Beach as a good-time DVD date, but don’t underestimate this film. The San Francisco setting wasn’t just a matter of convenience or familiarity, chosen because the filmmakers lived here. They were taking a direct shot at the accepted practice of San Francisco-as-playground for an endless parade of white, newly minted college grads—yuppie trespassers, to coin a phrase—who eventually go suburban when the time comes to marry and have children.

A critique of the movie’s target audience? That’s entertainment.

Medicine for Melancholy (2008)
A romantic entanglement is likewise the ostensible subject of Barry Jenkins’ beautifully composed and shot debut feature. The unfolding status of a couple, in this case African American, becomes the jumping-off point for a much more serious discussion of San Francisco demographics in the 21st Century.

Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo’ (Tracey Heggins) didn’t even know each other yesterday. They met at a party, slept together and begin the day still strangers, in a strange house in a city in which he, at least, doesn’t feel at home. She’s fine with shaking hands and slipping out the door to whatever the future holds today; he’s unwilling to accept another fleeting urban meeting that evaporates into nothingness.

Thanks to his persistence more than anything else, Micah and Jo’ end up spending the day together. She fences and parleys his attempts to forge a lasting connection, while he adeptly prods and manipulates—he’s a good talker, this guy—so as to remain in her physical proximity. The title of that great Louis Jordan song, “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?,” sums up what appears to be Micah’s agenda. Fortunately, neither the film nor life are quite that simple.

The fluid narrative and seemingly improvised structure, combined with the leads’ sexual chemistry, sets Medicine for Melancholy clearly and intentionally in the tradition of the French New Wave. Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton further salute their source by draining the color from the screen in a contemporary chiaroscuro interpretation of black-and-white.

Jo’ and Micah are likable characters and we develop some rooting interest in their staying together, but Jenkins—like Godard and Rivette—is consciously using the shaggy-dog trappings of genre film to seduce the audience into enjoying a subversive, socio-political film. Micah’s acerbic commentary about the history and scarcity of black people in San Francisco emerges as the movie’s manifesto.

Jo’ is, in the vernacular of another century, assimilated. Or, to use a more contemporary word, colorblind. (The film’s desaturated palette isn’t just homage, you see.) Skilled at fitting in any situation and location, even the Marina, she’s all about the present. She thinks it’s pointless to look back, not (as Satchel Paige said) because something might be gaining on you, but because the past couldn’t be more irrelevant.

One person’s pragmatism is another person’s denial, and Micah can’t abide her willful ignorance of history. His impassioned recitation of the decline and marginalization of blacks in San Francisco is also an attack on our ignorance, of course, and our apathy. It works beautifully, especially for those viewers who identify with his spirit of activism more than Jo’s post-racial, post-feminist worldview.

And for the record, Medicine for Melancholy was the first San Francisco independent feature in several years to receive national distribution.

Notes from the Underground
The Red Vic Movie House closes Monday, July 25 with Harold and Maude. After 31 years, congrats and condolences....Thomas Ropelewski’s Child of Giants: My Journey with Maynard Dixon and Dorothea Lange receives its broadcast premiere Sunday, July 24 at 5:30 pm with additional airings Monday at 8 pm and Tuesday at 2 am as part of KQED’s “Truly CA” series....ITVS celebrates its 20th anniversary with an online film festival that includes Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco’s Academy Award-nominated Daughter from Danang. Look for titles at itvs.org/television....The opening of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, which shot a few scenes in S.F., has been moved up to Sept. 9....The Palo Alto International Film Festival (paiff.net) has announced the lineup of workshops and screenings in its Digital Natives Youth Program, taking place September 29-October 2....Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, from a script by Dustin Lance Black (Milk), opens in October. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival will present the U.S. premiere of the complete 2000 restoration of Abel Gance's Napoleon by renowned historian and archivist Kevin Brownlow at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland on March 24, 25, 31 and April 1, 2012. Carl Davis, who composed the score for the 1979 restoration, will conduct the East Bay Oakland Symphony. For info and tickets, visit silentfilm.org/event-special.php.

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