What does it mean to live by a code? John Corey, a recovering philosophy major and award-winning documentary filmmaker, first started thinking about how ethics could guide one’s life while attending Saint Anthony Immaculate Conception Catholic School, which straddles the Mission and Bernal Heights.
The path between his formative years in elementary school and his jewel-like short film “A Pythagorean Love Story” might be circuitous, but the connection is clear. “I got to know and appreciate many of the kids who went to Immaculate Conception, and they informed this story in some way,” he said from his home in Noe Valley. “It’s about people who are dedicated to some religious tradition.”
Available for streaming Feb. 3 to 13 as part of the 24th San Francisco Independent Film Festival and on screen Feb. 8 at the Roxie, “A Pythagorean Love Story” premiered in October at the 2021 Oregon Independent Film Festival, where it won the Best Short Film Award. In place of the catechism, the playfully wry 10-minute narrative introduces a young man who is attempting to live by a far older doctrine.
More than a seminal mathematician, Pythagoras, it turns out, set down some rules for life that, given some 2,500 years of hindsight, seem rather random. The Pythagorean code includes eschewing beans and not picking up objects one has dropped. The latter rule figures prominently in “Love Story,” which is a marvel of concise storytelling that focuses on a day in the life of the lonely San Franciscan Roric Sparrow, who’s attempting to live a Pythagorean life.
Corey’s gift for distilling the concision turns the opening sequence into a telegraphic marvel reminiscent of the classic “Got Milk” commercial with the peanut butter-munching Aaron Burr fanatic. Given the filmmaker’s evident affection for his gentle, oddball protagonist, it’s not surprising to discover that Corey majored in philosophy at Claremont McKenna College.
“I always joke that a philosophy degree is the least marketable one,” Corey said. “You can’t necessarily open a philosophy store. The story does partly stem from some of my readings as an undergrad. Just out of college, I was living in Europe with a lot of time on my hands. I was going to read Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy all the way through. That’s the book Roric opens in the beginning of the film.”
It was in Russell’s tome that Corey became acquainted with Pythagoras as “not just a famous mathematician but a philosopher with a strange ecstatic religion around him and a strange set of commandments. For a long time I’ve thought about how do you fashion a story around it.”
Corey’s first venture into narrative film follows a long career as a film and television producer specializing in nonfiction projects. He spent seven years at Evening Magazine, a nightly program produced out of San Francisco’s CBS affiliate. It was while he was coming up with more than a dozen short features a week as supervising producer that he tackled his first feature-length documentary, “Lost in the Fog,” producing, directing, writing and editing the 2007 film about a champion racehorse.
Longtime Mission residents might recall the horse’s owner, Harry Aleo, who owned a real estate office at 24th and Castro streets, where he’d often post conservative diatribes in the window. “He had a little money from his real estate business and decided he was going to swing for the fences with this horse that took him and his trainer on the ride of a lifetime,” Corey said.
“I did a short piece on him, and I was able to luck into a remarkable and dramatic story that I followed for a year. That was my start in filmmaking.”
Without offering any spoilers for “A Pythagorean Love Story,” the tale ends with a romantic cliffhanger that seems ripe for another chapter or three. He took the plunge into fiction when corporate work dried up dramatically at the start of the pandemic. “I thought to myself, I always complain that I can’t do a passion project,” he said. “When the paying gigs dried up, there were no more excuses. Sometimes you make a film like this and it can lead to another chapter. If people like it I might try to expand it.”
Dare I suggest a plot twist? I’m hoping that Corey tries his hand at “A Pythagorean Love Triangle.”