Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Screen shot from Kino DVD
WHO: Robert Weine directed this

WHAT: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is huge in cinema history and in my own personal history with cinema. It's frequently (incorrectly) cited as the first horror movie, and its iconic imagery has been borrowed shamelessly by other filmmakers from the silent era to Tim Burton and beyond. With few of its director's other films available for view, it generally frustrates auteurists, especially those highly influenced by the theories of realism put forth by the influential French critic Andre Bazin, who labeled Caligari a "failure" under his criteria for worthy photographic art. 

When I first became interested in exploring silent film history many years, ago, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was one of the first films from the era that made a very strong and immediate impression upon initial viewing. Though I was watching a rather muddy VHS transfer, I loved what I saw, and became a little obsessed. I read about every article or book I could find about it (including David Robinson's excellent monograph), purchased an 8mm print on ebay (my first and ever such purchase, even though I didn't have a projector at the time) and even dressed as the somnambulist for Halloween that year (immortalized in a photograph I've recently cycled in as my twitter avatar). 

WHERE/WHEN: 9PM tonight at the Castro Theatre, presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

WHY: Since my first viewing I've taken a few opportunities to see the film when it's screened in local cinemas (which happens less often than you might expect, actually), and have seen it projected from an even muddier video transfer at the Castro accompanied by the local ensemble Club Foot Orchestra, and have seen a 1950s-era retitled 35mm version at the Pacific Film Archive with Judith Rosenberg at the piano and accompanied by a lecture by film scholar Russell Merritt, who has just joined the board of the Silent Film Festival. 

None of these viewings, or of the DVD viewings I've also experienced in the interim, have been afforded use of a new 4K sprucing of the best original elements. This version premiered in Berlin earlier in 2014, and tonight is the US premiere. It's also the first time I'll be able to view a 4K digital file projected through the Castro's recent acquisition, a 4K projector to replace the 2K one they've had for several years and which had recently developed an "undead pixel" problem (which is even scarier than it sounds). Although I wish the Murnau Foundation would have made a 35mm print available of this new restoration, I'm curious to see what 4K projection at the Castro might look like when applied to a classic film that I'm very familiar with.

Tonight's screening is the capper to a full day of Silent Film Festival shows, the entirety of which have been enthusiastically rounded-up by my friend Michael Hawley of the film-415 blog (which I hope he never has to change to film-628). 35mm screenings for this all-day even include the 11AM program of Laurel & Hardy two-reelers, and the 7PM showing of Buster Keaton's The General with live musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra (who last performed this at the Castro in 2004- I was there and was very impressed by how a percussion-heavy score helps amp up the action-adventure elements of the classic Keaton comedy.) The Alloys' 3PM world-premiere presentation of their new, years-in-the-making score to Rudoph Valentino's allegedly best film Son of the Sheik will be sourced from a DCP, as will the BFI's A Night in the Cinema in 1914 show.

HOW: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari screens as a 4K DCP, with live music by the versatile keyboardist Donald Sosin. I've heard his eerie score for the Kino DVD and am very interested in hearing how he transforms it in a live environment.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Our Man In Havana (1959)

Screen capture from Sony DVD
WHO: Alec Guinness, the versatile English actor who would have turned 100 earlier this year if he were still alive today, stars in this film directed by Carol Reed.

WHAT: I haven't seen this particular Guinness film, but Cheryl Eddy, in a recent article on Guinness, describes it thus:
Guinness is brilliant as an expat whose desire to provide a better life for his materialistic teenage daughter (Jo Morrow) leads him to set aside the vacuum-cleaner biz and accept a gig as a British secret agent. Thing is, he'd rather just sip daiquiris than engage in espionage, so he fakes his way, with luck and imagination, into being "the best agent in the Western hemisphere."
WHERE/WHEN: Today only at the Rafael Film Center at 4:30 & 7:30.

WHY: Our Man in Havana screens as part of a seven-title centennial Guinness tribute that's been running each Sunday since August, and which winds down the next two weekends with new DCPs of his Ealing comedies The Man With The White Suit and The Ladykillers. Of course the irony of Guinness's legacy is that he's by far best remembered for a role he frequently voiced his disdain for, that of Obi-Wan Kenobi in George Lucas's original Star Wars and its two immediate sequels. Though these films have been left out of this mini-series, fans of Guinness as Kenobi will be able to see him on an even bigger Marin County screen on Monday, October 6th, when The Empire Strikes Back (or the 1997 revision thereof, to be precise) is brought to the Cinema Corte Madera by the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF).

One of Frisco Bay's largest remaining single-screen theatres, the Corte Madera is where I first saw The Empire Strikes Back upon its original 1980 release, a still-vivid memory for this then-seven-year-old. I'm a bit surprised to see this Marin-made blockbuster in the line-up, as it just screened the festival in 2010, on the 30th anniversary of its release, kicking off an annual string of Lucasfilm productions revived on some multiple of five years after it's debut (1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark in 2011, 1977's Star Wars in 2012, and 1983's Return of the Jedi in 2013). I was expecting this year to bring a 30th anniversary showing of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or a 25th anniversary of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but it appears the expectations for the 2016 arrival of new Star Wars saga episodes is "altering the deal." The MVFF program guide refers to a "count down" so perhaps we might expect the 1977 Star Wars, which (spoiler alert) features Guinness's Obi-Wan in a larger part, to appear at the Corte Madera next year...

This is one of the many surprises the MVFF program had in store when last week it revealed the full program for its 37th edition, to be held in Mill Valley, San Rafael, Larkspur and Corte Madera from October 2nd-12th. The longest-running and highest-profile of Frisco Bay's "general interest" film festivals outside of the San Francisco International Film Festival, MVFF has built loyal audiences through employment of a successful formula over the years: securing Northern California (and sometimes West Coast or even U.S.) premieres of several major end-of-year awards "hopefuls", most with acting and/or directing talent expected in attendance, bringing a healthy selection of documentaries and unsung independent films, many with local ties, choosing foreign-language films fresh from Cannes and other festivals, and filling out the program with shorts, retrospectives, and the annual "Children's Filmfest" within the main festival. Lincoln Spector of Bayflicks has written a good first overview on his site, and I plan to write more soon myself. In the meantime, look at the list of MVFF films at or near RUSH status for a sense of what tickets to buy in advance if you're thinking of attending this year.

HOW: It's rare for the Rafael to screen 35mm prints these days, but they still have the capability, and will be utilizing it to screen Our Man In Havana. The next print scheduled to play there is of Yoji Yamada's award-winning follow-up to last year's wonderful MVFF selection Tokyo Family, entitled The Little House, which is the only 2014 MVFF title expected to unspool in 35mm.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Berkeley In the Sixties (1990)

Screen capture image from First Run Features DVD
WHO: Documentarian Mark Kitchell, whose most recent release was last year's environmentalism doc A Fierce Green Fire, co-wrote and directed this.

WHAT: Berkeley In The Sixties is a well-crafted, aesthetically conservative film about leftists, radicals, and other key figures in the 1960s social protest movements that have been so strongly associated with the East Bay city's public image ever since. For those of us who know this period only second-hand, it's a concise primer on far-ranging subjects like the Free Speech Movement, Anti-Vietnam War protests, "Hippie" counterculture, the Black Panthers, and the battle over People's Park.  Made when the events were 20-30 years old (imagine, as a parallel, a documentary on the final ten years of South African apartheid released today), its interviews with 1960s activists show a remarkable candor about the relative strengths and weaknesses of their own protest tactics, frozen at a pre-Clinton-era moment. It would be interesting to know if the interviewees (including Susan Griffin, David Hilliard and Frank Bardacke) would have similar things to say today, now that the term "Free Speech" has been appropriated by the Right to mean "money". At any rate, this nearly quarter-century-year-old film has yet to be superseded by another documentary on these topics, as far as I'm aware.

In addition to interviews, Berkeley in the Sixties is constructed of often astonishing archival footage, collected from from rarely-seen films from the period, some by names as well-known as Agnès Varda, David Peoples, Irving Saraf, Lenny Lipton, and Will Vinton. Although I found it odd that Scott Bartlett's 1972 work OffOn was used to illustrate the visual component of a March 1966 Jefferson Airplane concert thrown by the Vietnam Day Committee and later denounced by then-gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan.  The first several archival clips used are not from Berkeley at all, but from early 1960s San Francisco protests that are said to have laid the foundation for the galvanization of UC Berkeley students to fight for freedom of speech on their own campus. The image above is from a remarkable anti-HUAC protest in San Francisco's City Hall in 1960.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 7PM today only at the Pacific Film Archive.

WHY: Tonight's screening, which will be attended by filmmaker Kitchell as well as Frank Bardacke and other activists from the era, launches an important series at the Pacific Film Archive that will last until the end of next month. Entitled Activate Yourself: The Free Speech Movement At 50, this series collects a diverse array of rarely-seen films that together aim to paint an essential portrait of the Bay Area's political roots from a half-century ago or so. Tuesday, September 23rd's show highlights films from the San Francisco Newsreel media collective, as well as Desert Hearts director Donna Deitch's early PP1, which sounds irresistible from the PFA's description to this Steve Reich & John Cage fan. October 9th's Sons and Daughters is one of the especially obscure films whose footage is borrowed for Berkeley in the Sixties: extremely charged documentation of protesters trying to convince young military recruits to turn away from the Oakland Army Terminal where they're being processed on the way to Vietnam. October 14th's program features two sub-feature-length documentaries made by filmmakers with a very different viewpoint from that of the anti-HUAC protesters shown in the image above, and will be contextualized by a UC Berkeley law professor following the screenings.

Most of the series films are from the era itself, but KPFA On The Air by Veronica Selver (who was the editor of Berkeley in the Sixties) is a portrait of the broadcasting fulcrum of politics and culture released 51 years after the station first went on the air in 1949. It screens October 26th with Norman Yamamoto's Second Campaign. Finally, the series ends with the sole non-documentary of the set, Art Napoleon's The Activist, shot on the cheap in Berkeley and released with an X rating the same year as Midnight Cowboy was.

Although this series is certainly of interest to cinephiles and political history buffs from across Frisco Bay, not just Berkeley, most of its films do focus on that city. San Francisco gets its own spotlight in a perhaps-complimentary Yerba Buena Center for the Arts series showcasing activist-oriented films shot on this side of the Bay. Starting October 2nd, canonized independent classics like The Times of Harvey Milk and Chan is Missing rub up against lesser-known films documenting Frisco's key communities, such as Take This Hammer featuring James Baldwin on a visit to Hunter's Point (showing free October 26th) and Alcatraz Is Not An Island, about the "Urban Indians" who occupied the former prison, future tourist trap in November 1969. I'm especially excited by the 16mm screening of Curtis Choy's 1983 The Fall of the I-Hotel, which documented the destruction of the last remnant of a now-almost-forgotten neighborhood known as Manilatown. I've been wanting to see it for years, and I hope to be there among an intergenerational audience of activists and cinephiles, historians and tech workers, landlords and tenants, SF natives and newcomers, all realizing we need to come together to look at this city's past if we're going to understand how to prepare for its future.

HOW: Berkeley in the Sixties screens from a 16mm print

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Fin de Siècle (2011)

Image from artist website.
WHO: Kathleen Quillian made this short animation.

WHAT: The cut-out animation tradition includes some illustrious names: Harry Smith, Stan Vanderbeek, Lawrence Jordan, Norman McLaren, Walerian Borowczyk, Terry Gilliam. More recently even Jan Svankmajer (who turns eighty today) has turned his hand to it. But in the last several years, it feels like women have been creating the most focused and fiery entries into this often disrespected corner of moving image art. Theoretically these kind of films seem comparatively easier to create than some other forms of animation: they don't necessarily require drawing skill or powerful software systems. But what they do require is an intense amount of planning, perseverance, and a knack for conceptualizing interesting movement in the face of limited parameters. Animators like Stacey Steers, Martha Colburn, and Janie Geiser have done wonderful work in the past decade or so, each creating pieces with distinctive thematic and stylistic attributes. Though Kathleen Quillian has not yet amassed a prolific output as these women have, she's working toward that, and her most recently-completed film Fin de Siècle, investigating the pessimistic and superstitious outlooks of many denizens of the late  nineteenth century, deserves to be compared to the works of Colburn, Geiser, etc. as David Finkelstein did in a Film Threat review I shall republish a brief sample of:
Quillian has a sharp eye for creating arresting, off balance visual compositions, and for using simple visual elements to create the sense of wonder and strangeness which permeate turn of the century writings on the occult and the longing to make contact with the supernatural. 
WHERE/WHEN: Screens on a program starting 8PM tonight at Artists' Television Access.

WHY: This month marks the 30th anniversary of Artists's Television Access, or as it usually nicknamed, A.T.A. The venue is celebrating by hosting a panoply of special events this month (and beyond), starting with tonight's "Open Screening" program of work made by current or former A.T.A. staffers including Dale Hoyt, Claire Bain, Mike Missiaen, Karla Milosevich and more, put together by filmmaker Linda Scobie. She writes, "this show is a wonderfully varied mix of the diverse community involved with A.T.A. over the years and a unique experience to see all their films showcased together."

There are too many events at the space for one person to see. Or are there?  A gauntlet has been thrown down to endurance-testing cinephiles with a 30-hour marathon screening of films selected by members of the A.T.A. community (also including Quillian and sound artist Gilbert Guerrero, her collaborative partner on Fin de Siècle and on running the Shapeshifters Cinema in Oakland). It starts 1PM tomorrow, and it's possible to see everything for as little as $1 per hour of viewing. I must admit I'm tempted to try. Later in the month A.T.A. hosts new installments of popular series like the music/performance-focuesd Mission Eye & Ear, the kickoff to the Fall calendar for the Other Cinema series curated by the Mission iconoclast Craig Baldwin, an evening devoted to works by Baldwin himself: ¡O No Coronado!, Wild Gunman and Sonic Outlaws (his latest feature Mock Up On Mu is part of the marathon, appropriately scheduled for the witching hour), and a pair of screenings of work by the Mission's twin filmmaker legends, Mike Kuchar and his late brother George.

In an article at Eat Drink Films reminiscences about the unique Mission District venue have been collected by that site's new editor, Johnny Ray Huston. My own experiences with the venue date back to my earliest awarenesses of it as the most "beyond punk rock" of all of San Francisco's screening spaces, and along with Aquarius Records and Leather Tongue video (the latter now long-since closed although its iconic sign hangs in Bender's) symbolized Valencia Street for me as a teenager in the early 1990s as the mecca for media that I'd never heard of before and doubted I'd ever be cool enough or smart enough to understand. A part of my cinephilia may be rooted in a quest to unlock the mystique of a place like A.T.A., but I think I've learned that this is probably impossible. A.T.A. boggles the mind of everybody, even the people who are closely involved in its continued operation. With all the changes that Valencia street has gone through in the past 30, 20, ten, five, or even two years, A.T.A. is perhaps the street's most unlikely survivor, and for me its most welcome one. If you can't attend any of the screenings this week or month, please consider donating to an Indiegogo campaign determined to upgrade the venue's technological capacity so it can last for another thirty years.

HOW: Scobie notes that tonight "we're screening many different formats from super-8 to VHS, Hi-8, and a hybrid of 35mm slides and digital video. You'll see current works in progress being shown to classic films dating back to the early '90s." I expect Fin de Siècle to screen on digital video.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Popeye (1980)

Screen shot from Paramount DVD.
WHO: Robert Altman directed Robin Williams in his first major motion picture role.

WHAT: Robert Altman directed thirty-six feature films and dozens upon dozens of plays and television episodes, but only one of these was an adaptation of a beloved comic strip character (who had been translated to screen by the Fleischer Brothers as animation nearly fifty years prior). It followed a post-Nashville hitless streak that included some of his strangest (and, some of them, among his best) movies, most notably the so-called "Fox Five": the Bergman-esque Three Women, the caustic comedy A Wedding, the enigmatic Quintet (which could be a good double-bill-mate with Bong Joon-ho's current Snowpiercer), the rock-and-roll romance A Perfect Couple, and the proto-Pret-A-Porter of the naturopathy movement HealtHLongtime Altman collaborator David Levy is quoted in Mitchell Zuckoff's indispensable book Robert Altman: The Oral Biography: "if the five-picture Fox deal left his career in a place where it was on the precipice, this project would be the one that would either put him back on top or he'd be falling over into the abyss."

As it turned out, it became the latter, as Altman spent the following decade-plus persona non grata at Hollywood studios, forced to shut down his own company Lion's Gate (not to be confused with the current outfit), and scrape together television and below-the-radar independent projects (some of them excellent in their own right) until re-emerging with The Player in 1992. This was because of the critical and commercial failure of Popeye upon its opening. However, in a situation that seems impossible to replicate today, Popeye ultimately caught on with audiences starved for big-screen family entertainment, especially at weekend matinees across the country, and ended up, according to screenwriter Jules Feiffer, one of the top ten moneymakers of the year. Today its reputation is in ascendency among Altman fans, although the director always defended it, as at his last San Francisco public appearance at the Castro Theatre in 2003, when he called it his favorite of all his films in response to an audience question that denigrated it. It may be that, as a recent Dissolve article says, producer Robert Evans "bitterly regretted" the film, but in Zuckoff's book he calls it "a work of genius" and "Bob's best work", suggesting that it should be rereleased today.

As for Robin Williams, the star whose suicide this month would sadly be the most likely reason for such a rerelease, here are some of his comments in Robert Altman: the Oral Biography
It's a beautiful film, man. It's done with the same love he made every other film with. He told me later on, "Don't always go with a critical response. Go with, 'What did you do there?'" Yeah, we did do some really great stuff. I think it was just because it was my first movie, it was like the illusion--"I want the studio to make money." [. . .] I think for the first one of of the gate, that's a pretty amazing experience. It's kind of like Apocalypse Now without the death. . . . For your first movie to get the shit kicked out of it, it toughened me up. It's kind of, in a weird way, a gift. It was like, "Hey, now you go off and you work. You're no longer a virgin. You've been in your first battle. it wasn't a total victory but we didn't get slaughtered. So keep going."
WHERE/WHEN: Screens 7:20 tonight at the Castro Theatre, and 4:00 today and 3:00 Monday at the New Parkway in Oakland.

WHY: Popeye is a perfect MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS selection, as it snugly fits head MANiAC Jesse Hawthorne Ficks's neo-sincere philosophy of appreciation of "misunderstood and maligned" movies. Though tonight's Castro screening is surely going to be affected by the spike of interest in Williams following his suicide, it was actually planned (unlike the New Parkway shows) before the star made that tragic decision. So although it's not one of the first Williams tribute screenings here in San Francisco, it will end up being the first at the Castro Theatre, to be followed by eight shows on that venue's newly-announced September calendar. If you click that link you can also see the first programs for October at the Castro, beginning with an October 1st tribute to the late Lauren Bacall, who was tributed beautifully by in this week's issue of Eat Drink Films by Eddie Muller, by way of the vivid description of the circumstances of his 2007 interview with the Hollywood icon (who incidentally starred in Altman's HealtH along with the recently-deceased James Garner; it's been a bad summer for stars of 1980 Altman films.) The back page of the September Castro calendar gives us a bit more information than what's available on-line. More Bacall tribute screenings there will include Key Largo and Harper on October 12th and How to Marry a Millionaire and Written on the Wind on October 19th. Although the Castro now has a new 4K projector for its digital screenings, which will be used to show this weekend's booking of Lawrence of Arabia (I hope this doesn't spell the end of 70mm screenings at one of the few local venues which can theoretically hold them, although I fear it might), I hope that, like most of the Robin Williams tribute showings (all but Popeye and The Fisher King), most of the Bacall screenings will be able to be shown in 35mm prints. No word on that yet, though. UPDATE: Shortly after publication I learned that all the Bacall films will be shown in their native 35mm, other than How to Marry a Millionaire.

As Cheryl Eddy notes in her excellent SF Bay Guardian Fall preview of Frisco Bay cinema options (from which I have finally updated my sidebar of upcoming film festivals, if you scroll up and to the right), the next MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS screening is (a week before previously announced) a September 19th showing of Inside Llewyn Davis (shot on film but sadly unavailable to screen that way, it seems) and a 35mm print of Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner's Daughter. What she doesn't mention (presumably because it was unavailable at press time) are some of the other terrific Castro September options, such as the rarely seen Bob Fosse film Sweet Charity screening in 35mm with the new DCP of All That Jazz September 6th, or a 35mm double-bill of Red Desert and Mickey One Sept. 24, or two prints of Sam Fuller films Park Row and Pickup on South Street, playing with a new documentary by his daughter Samantha called A Fuller Life, on Sept. 28. 

HOW: Tonight's screening is a double-feature with a 35mm print of Sidney Lumet's The Wiz, but Popeye itself will be screened as DCP. The New Parkway's showing will also be digital, as always at that venue.