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By Olivia Boler
Harry Aleo, a pillar of the Noe Valley community, passed away last June, but not much has changed in his Twin Peaks Properties storefront on 24th Street. The handwritten poster proclaiming "Looney Valley, home of the latte-sipping liberals" is still front and center, as are reverential photos of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. One difference, however, is a poster and TV set promoting a new movie about Aleo and his famous racehorse, Lost in the Fog.
The film, which shares the horse's name, was directed by John Corey, a 41-year-old Noe Valley native who lives with his wife and three boys in the same house he grew up in on Elizabeth Street. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Corey, like many Noe Valleyans, passed by Aleo's storefront "every day, first grimacing, then eventually laughing at the grouchy signs in the windows." In those days, Corey ran the KPIX Channel 5 television show Evening Magazine, and also produced some of its pieces. Always on the hunt for a good story, Corey toyed with the idea of showcasing Aleo, but he couldn't seen to find the right angle.
That is until 2005, when the San Francisco Chronicle started running stories about a local racehorse who kept winning races and might be a candidate for the Kentucky Derby--a horse owned by "a cantankerous old guy infamous in his San Francisco neighborhood for putting conservative paraphernalia in the windows of his dusty old real estate office," Corey says. "I thought, That's my guy. I have to do a piece on him now."
After trying in vain to leave a phone message for Aleo, Corey walked into Twin Peaks Properties at 4072 24th Street and introduced himself in person. "He took to me right away. Harry had grown up in Noe Valley too, on Diamond Street, so as far as he was concerned, we were just a couple of guys who grew up in the neighborhood, albeit 50 years apart. We became fast friends."
Corey did his piece on Aleo and Lost in the Fog for KPIX, and wound up spending months following his subjects through stables and around racetracks. But as he watched the colt's fairy-tale winning streak come to its sad end--the thoroughbred had to be put down in 2006, after being diagnosed with cancer--he realized he had more than just a TV spot. He had a feature-length documentary.
The film Lost in the Fog had its official premiere last June at the CineVegas Film Festival in Las Vegas, where it had earned the Best Documentary Audience Award. Before that, it was given a special screening at the Kabuki in San Francisco.
Fortunately, Aleo got to see the film before he died.
"The first time he saw it, true to form, he told me he hated it," Corey recalls. "At that point, it was just too raw for him. The horse hadn't been gone for that long, and it still stung. He wasn't a big fan of watching himself either."
Eventually, however, Aleo grew to like the film a lot. In fact, he would invite friends over for dinner and afterwards ask if they wanted to watch a movie--Lost in the Fog. "He was a big fan at the end."
As for Corey, he spent all of last summer showing the film at festivals, including the Rhode Island International Film Festival, San Diego Film Festival, and Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis. By far, the most prestigious screening was at the International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA).
"It's the biggest documentary film festival and market in the world, and I must admit that I was shocked when they called and said they wanted to show the movie--in the Best First Feature competition, no less," Corey says. "I'm not necessarily established in the film world, and for the programmers at IDFA to pick this movie off the pile was a tremendous honor. It's the Cannes [Film Festival] of the documentary world. I remember sitting there in a theater full of all these important filmmakers, sales agents, and the like, just laughing, thinking to myself, There's Harry in all his cantankerous glory--in Amsterdam of all places."
Eventually, Corey had to leave his KPIX job "to really do the story justice. As of now, I'm working hard on getting Lost in the Fog shown in theaters and on television, and am also developing another feature-length documentary on the great, doomed jazz trumpeter, Lee Morgan."
Corey thinks Noe Valleyans in particular will find the Fog movie fascinating, because it will give them a window (no pun intended) on the man behind the storefront slogans.
"Everyone knows of the windows, but it's the rare few who mustered up the courage to go inside and talk to him," Corey says. "I'll admit that I was intimidated by the facade. I think most people in Noe Valley will be surprised by how funny and authentic and ultimately charismatic Harry is."
The film is on sale as a limited-release DVD at Castro Street's Video Wave and on Corey's website, www.lostinthefogthe movie.com (check out his blog as well at www.lostinthefogthemovie.blogspot.com).
For now, Corey is selling the DVD to "assorted hardcore horseracing fans and Noe Valley folks exclusively." Once the film goes through whatever theatrical and broadcast showings it might have, he'll release the DVD more widely, and it will then be available for rental.
What's next for Lost in the Fog and its creator?
"My big push will be around May, to take advantage of the publicity surrounding the Kentucky Derby," Corey says. "I hope to put together an outdoor screening in the neighborhood, a kind of a drive-in affair at either the Noe Valley Ministry lot across from Martha's Coffee [on 24th Street] or the parking lot across from Harry's office. I think it would be great fun--a good family event--and I'll be working with Video Wave to make it happen."