Devil, details: Strand Releasing, at 20, is celebrated in a series at YBCA that includes "Love is the Devil." (Photo courtesy Strand)

Strand Releasing Turns 20

Dennis Harvey February 26, 2009

Nineteen eighty nine was famously the year Amerindie cinema exploded with Sex, Lies and Videotape. But it was also the year something perhaps equally important to independent film happened: Marcus Hu, Jon Gerrans and Mike Thomas co-founded Strand Releasing, which remains an active, irreplaceable and distinctive presence on the U.S. distribution scene twenty years later. (Thomas left the company in the late ’90s.)

That anniversary is being celebrated with a retrospective of past Strand titles at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. (More on it below.) But that series can only scratch the surface of a catalog encompassing over 200 features and some of the great names in film both here and around the world. Just a glance at what it’s currently got in theaters gives you an idea of its adventurousness: Brit Terence Davies’ poetic documentary-memoir Of Time and the City; Doris Dörrie’s German-Japanese seriocomedy Cherry Blossoms; Lance Hammer’s highly acclaimed Amerindie drama Ballast; Bruce LaBruce’s latest provocation Otto, or Up With Dead People; and fellow Canadian Claude Miller’s sweeping intergenerational sale Un Secret.

What’s more, Strand has frequently given American arthouse patrons their first looks at talents like Claire Denis, Arnaud Desplechin, Kelly Reichardt, Eytan Fox, Ferzan Ozpetek, André Téchiné, Tsai Ming-liang, Thomas Vinterberg, Lukas Moodyson, Ira Sachs and François Ozon. It’s released films that might not otherwise have escaped the festival circuit by masters like Raoul Ruiz, Paul Cox, Stanley Kwan, Manoel de Oliveira and Aki Kaurismaki.

It put the New Queer Cinema movement in theaters, from Looking for Langston and Swoon to pretty much everything by LaBruce, Gregg Araki and John Greyson. It’s done gay and lesbian crowdpleasers (Claire of the Moon, Macho Dancer, the ongoing Boy’s Shorts series) as well as challenging crowd dis-pleasers (hello, Todd Verow’s Frisk).

Strand has championed numerous bold new Asian voices emerging in recent years, like Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul of Tropical Malady. There have been occasional stellar re-releases of restored treasures like Godard’s 1963 Contempt and ’60s underground classic Pink Narcissus. Its catalog also free-ranges through movies as disparate as the Dixie Chicks documentary Shut Up and Sing and spoof comedy The Hebrew Hammer. Not to mention something called Spunk’d: The Complete First Load by director "I.M. Cumming"—which information alone leaves a certain taste in the mouth.

Strand has always taken a lot of risks. Its acquisitional tastes, simply described on their website as seeking "to fuse quality art films with commercial product," amplifies a sensibility both distinctive and unpredictable on the part of the co-founder/presidents and their staff.

That personality is amply displayed in YBCA’s "Fearless: Strand Releasing Turns 20." While the eight features showcased over six nights between February 26 and March 8 show just a few facets of Strand’s idiosyncratic interests, they do convey its daring in terms of taking on films that thematically and/or artistically push well beyond the bounds of U.S. arthouse norms. Almost everything here provokes in one way or another—though it must be said that Strand has picked up plenty of simply sweet, sexy, funny, poignant or informative films in its two decades to date as well.

First up is the S.F. premiere of Johan Renck‘s Downloading Nancy, a 2008 Sundance premiere that has not yet hit theatres. It’s an example of the kind of movie Strand often winds up distributing, because its content lands in the terrain of "where others fear to tread." Maria Bello plays a middle-class wife who leaves her husband (Rufus Sewell) for an Internet-met stranger (Jason Patric) she wants to kill her—after some non-fatal rough stuff, preferably. Bello’s intense performance as a self-mutiliating masochist dead to any feelings save pain is the reason to watch, though you may flinch a few times doing so.

Even more brutalizing is Gaspar Noé’s 1998 first feature I Stand Alone, about a fat, middle-aged, homophobic, racist and all-around misanthropic unemployed French butcher. It’s a musical! Just kidding. Perhaps not quite as traumatic an experience as the director’s latest Irreversible—generally considered as having cinema’s most horrifically prolonged and violent rape—it is nonetheless a discomfiting, close look at psychopathic rage.

Almost larky by comparison—what wouldn’t be?—is a double bill of features by French actor turned writer-director Jacques Nolot. Both are cynical, downbeat, basically plotless yet drolly funny looks at sides of gay life that are anything but inspirational a la Milk. Porn Theatre (2002) portrays the goings on during a typical day at the typical titular establishment, where a jaded audience of hustlers, married men, trannies and aging gay men (one played by Nolot) spend a whole lot more time cruising each other than movie-watching. In 2007’s Before I Forget, which recently had a run on the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki, Nolot plays an exquisitely enervated ex-hustler who now hires the odd one himself, being 65 now and never interested in anything "apart from cocks, sun and bars." John Waters called it "the best feel-bad gay movie ever made."

That’s actually an acclamation you could also reasonably apply to John Maybury’s 1998 Love is the Devil. This brilliantly conceived and executed "study for a portrait of Francis Bacon" chronicles a period in the life of that late British painter, whose estate refused use of his works. Derek Jarman protégé Maybury compensated by making the entire movie look like a Bacon—meaning a distorted, queasy, flesh-and-blood-colored hell on Earth. Derek Jacobi plays the highly unsympathetic artist, while Daniel Craig—a long way from James Bond—is the petty-crook lover he drove to suicide. Love is the Devil is as unpleasant as it is very, very good.

If all the aforementioned sound a little dark for your taste, help is on the way with the double bill of two delightfully quirky, day-glo-colored recent fantasias from Thailand. The Wayward Cloud (2005) is Tsai Ming-liang’s crazy musical (not kidding this time) about a drought so severe it creates a dehydrated populace’s run on watermelons. Also involving the pornography industry, vintage 1950s Chinese pop tunes, kitsch production numbers and a very reluctant love story of sorts, this is an idiosyncratic treat. Likewise 2007’s Help Me Eros by Tsai protégé Lee Kang-sheng. Just as gorgeously stylized and goofy as Cloud—albeit without the musical numbers, making this more like Jacques Tati than Jacques Demy—it’s an even more arbitrary narrative about…well, I’m still not quite sure. But its absurdist universe is rather charming.

Last but not least, YBCA’s Strandfest looks back to one of the distributor’s signature titles: 1992’s The Living End was Gregg Araki’s third feature, and a bracing single-fingered-salute comment on the AIDS crisis after so many earnest, case-pleading, "PLEASE do something! We are your sons!!!" movies. Its protagonists, an HIV-positive gay male Bonnie and Clyde, rage at the machine and then some on their sexy, fatalistic road trip. Subtitled "An Irresponsible Movie" by Araki himself, it holds up nicely precisely because of its screw-you mix of heat, snark, anger and tenderness.

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