Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Hole (1998)

THE HOLE by Tsai Ming-liang, Courtesy Celluloid Dreams.
WHO: Malaysia-born, Taiwan-based filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang co-wrote and directed this.

WHAT: This apocalyptic tale was the first of Tsai's films I ever saw well over a decade ago, on videocassette, and it immediately hooked me on a filmmaker who would later make some of my favorites from the past decade (Goodbye, Dragon Inn, The Wayward Cloud, and pending another watch Stray Dogs). Some quotes from my original notes on seeing The Hole (which I have not revisited since): "definitely the strangest musical I've ever seen, it makes Dancer in the Dark or Jeanne and the Perfect Guy look about as unusual as Rodgers & Hart!" "Tsai arranges his spaces through the camera to maximize alienation and isolation, and the constant sound of running water (sometimes punctuated by alternatingly inane and alarming broadcasts) contributes greatly to this feeling as well."

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 2PM today only at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

WHY: This screening kicks off the YBCA's Invasion of the Cinemaniacs series, the film component of the museum's seventh triennial Bay Area Now celebration of local arts. The "core idea" of this year's exhibition, according to YBCA's own pitch, is "to decentralize the curatorial process and centralize the public presentation of some of the most exciting artistic voices in the region today." To do this, the YBCA curators have essentially curated curators from art spaces around the Bay Area ([ 2nd Floor projects ], the Chinese Culture Foundation, the San Quentin Prison Arts Project, etc.) to present works by artists associated with them. Works of particular interest to cinephiles in the gallery space include Paul Clipson's incredible book of storyboard-esque sketches preparing film projectionists for reel changes, presented by the Bay Area Art Workers Alliance, and Christina Marie Fong's elaborate installation of a bedroom bedecked with dozens of her own interpretive posters from horror movies, part of Creativity Explored's contribution to the show.

On the Film/Video side of the YBCA program team, Joel Shepard has already used the curating-curators concept for programming moving image at Bay Area Now- back in 2008 when he picked several local independent film programmers to choose selections to screen in conjunction with Bay Area Now 5. This year he's gone further, selecting people who normally don't get a chance to choose what screens in local theatres, yet who are, in his words, "hugely invested in film exhibition, but generally behind-the-scenes." I'm deeply honored to have been selected to be one of these selectors, and have been diligently preparing what to say when I introduce Robert Altman's The Company at the venue this coming Thursday. But I'm excited to hear what local-legendary publicist Karen Larsen has to say about Tsai Ming-Liang and the Hole this afternoon, and to hear all my fellow Cinemaniacs' introductions over then next few months. I hope you can join me for as many of the ten screenings as you can.

HOW: All the Invasion of the Cinemaniacs screenings are sourced from 35mm prints, except for the most recent one, Pietà, which as far as I know has never screened in that format.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Ugetsu (1953)

Screen capture from Janus DVD
WHO: Kenji Mizoguchi directed this; it was not the first film of his shown in the West, but it was the first to win the top prize at a major European film festival: Venice's Golden Lion. To this day it's the film that most frequently serves as the introduction to his filmmaking for European and North American cinephiles.

WHAT: The film's full name in Japanese is transliterated as Ugetsu Monogatari (generally translated as "Tales of Moonlight and Rain").  It's a film which contains multitudes: it's a 16th-century period drama, an anti-war critique, a ghost story, a tale of seduction, a samurai adventure (though not at all an action movie) and, like virtually all of the films made by Mizoguchi, it illustrates the sorrowful consequences of a patriarchal society.  The story follows a pair of peasants who try to capitalize on wartime upheaval by bringing a load of goods to the bustling city market.  Tempted by the promises of wealth and glory, they become so distracted from their goal of providing security for their families that their ultimate reunification is thrown into doubt. Everything is put across through beautiful black and white photography by cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, who also shot Rashomon and Yojimbo for Akira Kurosawa, Floating Weeds for Yasujiro Ozu, and a sizeable portion of the filmographies of Kon Ichikawa, Masahiro Shinoda, and Mizoguchi.

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

WHY: Tonight's screening launches a sixteen-film Mizoguchi series at the PFA, the largest local retrospective devoted to the great master since 1996. While not as close to comprehensive as the Mizoguchi celebration in New York last month (a great deal of writing about which was compiled by the ever-reliable David Hudson), it does bring Frisco Bay audiences their first chances in over ten or perhaps fifteen year to see films like The 47 Ronin, Crucified Lovers, The Tara Clan Saga and Princess Yang Kwei-Fei on cinema screens. I've been waiting for just such an opportunity to watch these films for the first time, so this series constitutes the major film event of the summer as far as I'm concerned. (I also hope to take advantage of repeat opportunities to see favorites like The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, Utamaro and His Five Women, The Life of Oharu, Sansho the Bailiff and my personal favorite of all his films, Street of Shame.)

HOW: The entire Mizoguchi series at the PFA will screen via 35mm prints. The Ugetsu print comes from the PFA's own collection.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Cosmic Voyage (1936)

image courtesy San Francisco Silent Film Festival
WHO: Stars Sergei Komarov, the Soviet-era actor who also performed in previous San Francisco Silent Film Festival selections By the Law, Chess Fever and The House on Trubnaya Square, and directed A Kiss From Mary Pickford. He's also in tomorrow night's The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks.

WHAT: In the words of Michael Atkinson, who wrote the essay on this film found in the glossy, 112-page program book provided free to every attendee of this year's Silent Film Festival, Cosmic Voyage is "a genuinely obscure silent-Soviet artifact that appears to not have been mentioned in any film history book known to the English-speaking world. This is hardly just an old silent-- it's a dream retrieved from the long-lost consciousness as well as an important progenitor of many of science fiction film's integral genre tropes."

WHERE/WHEN: Screens at 10PM tonight at the Castro Theatre.

WHY: Cosmic Voyage will be introduced by the one and only Craig Baldwin, who will share a little of his Other Cinema energy with a Castro Theatre audience as the SF Silent Film Festival's annual "filmmaker's pick". This program launched officially in 2008 when Guy Maddin gave a stirring defense of melodrama while introducing a screening of an imported French-intertitled print Tod Browning's The Unknown, for which he recited the English-language title cards. Since then, luminaries like Terry Zwigoff, Alexander Payne and Phillip Kaufman have provided introductions to selections from the festival programs. Last year the "filmmaker's pick" appeared to go on hiatus, although one might consider animator John Canemaker's presentation on pioneer Winsor McCay an unofficial iteration.

It's a wonderful tradition in my opinion, a perfect compliment to the many scholars and archivists who are brought in to introduce films at the festival each year. Though I wasn't able to fit her answer into my Keyframe preview on the festival, I was interested to hear what artistic director Anita Monga said about   Baldwin and the "filmmaker's pick" program when I spoke with her last week:
We don't just ask everyone. We're looking at their work and thinking, "how has early cinema influenced later cinema?" And there's something about Craig's work and that collage sense that has a direct correlation with the Soviet period. People often say "I'm not an expert on the silent film." But that's not why we're asking. We're trying to make the thread from the earliest cinema to today. In all kinds of ways, narrative filmmakers and underground filmmakers and experimental filmmakers had roots in the moving image of the silent era.
I also had the honor of being asked to interview Baldwin for the latest issue of a new Bay Area film site Eat Drink Films, just published earlier today. Please check out the interview and the other articles on the site including another Silent Film Festival-related piece on food in slapstick comedy, by Paul F. Etcheverry.

HOW: DCP with musical accompaniment by the Silent Movie Music Company (a.k.a. Günther Buchwald and Frank Backius). Frank Buxton will be on hand to read aloud an English translation of the Russian intertitles.

As for the digital nature of tonight's screening, I've already noted that there are more digital screenings than ever this year. Though I feel it's also worth noting there are also more film programs being screened on film this year than in any SFSFF year prior to Anita Monga's involvement in the festival. When I asked Monga about digital, she made some very interesting points:
At the beginning of DCP people made mistakes in the quality. They cleaned up too much. They made the image very flat. I am not one of the people who thinks that format is the paramount thing about these films. We're making these titles accessible in the best possible way. If I were going to be doctrinaire I would say I never want to see anything from the silent era on anything other than nitrate because there is a really qualitative difference between that and acetate. I'd like to continue doing other programs that address this."

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)

screen capture from DVD release of Hugo (2011)
WHO: Rudolph Valentino became a star from his role in this film.

WHAT: One of the most widely-seen films of the silent era, it reportedly took in $4 million in box office grosses, around the same amount as Chaplin's The Gold Rush did a few years later. But it is far less-frequently revived today. I missed its last Frisco Bay screening ten years ago because I was foolish enough to let my family schedule a reunion the same weekend as the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I'm thrilled to get a second chance to see it tonight, as it opens the 19th edition of that festival, the only reprised feature in the weekend program.

WHERE/WHEN: 7PM tonight only at the Castro Theatre.

WHY: I was reminded by Mick LaSalle's SFSFF preview that Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was cited by festival founder Melissa Chittick as the film that inspired her to create a silent film festival, back when she saw it presented at the 1993 San Francisco International Film Festival with Dennis James accompanying on organ. It only took about a year for the festival to hold its first event in 1994, an early history of the festival that I describe in my own festival preview, just published today at Fandor's Keyframe blog. There's been a sea of advance coverage for the festival, including previews by Thomas GladyszDennis Harvey, and Michael Hawley. I'm especially impressed by Carl Martin's thorough recounting of the provenance of all the 35mm prints for features being shown at the festival. I interviewed Anita Monga, who has now been the festival's artistic director for five years, for my own article. I hope you enjoy reading it, and seeing the films this weekend at the Castro.

HOW: 35mm print from Kevin Brownow's Photoplay Productions in England, with live accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. As Monga told me in our interview, "Patrick Stanbury, Kevin’s partner at Photoplay, will be in the projection booth, changing the speeds as the film goes. It’s 132 minutes but it is not all the same speed."

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Unknown (1927)

 A scene from Tod Browning's THE UNKNOWN, which will screen with live musical accompaniment by Stephin Merritt at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 24 - May 8. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society.
WHO: Tod Browning directed, and Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford star in this film.

WHAT: Eventually every film lover who digs deep enough into the most remarkable and unusual treasures of film history comes across The Unknown, a circus-set tale of obsession, blackmail, and revenge. It's best if he or she knows as little as possible about the plot specifics before watching it for the first time however. But I don't think it's a spoiler, or a risk of overselling it, to say that it contains Lon Chaney's most remarkable physical and emotional performance, and that I consider it one of the great cinematic works of the late 1920s, too-often unfairly relegated to sideshow status to the kinds of films that were considered for Academy Awards and/or received frequent citations in film history books. The Unknown barely even rated a mention in the 1957 Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces, in part because that film was made at Universal, which saw Chaney's Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame as far overshadowing the films he made with Tod Browning and others at MGM, and in part I suspect because its subject matter was still considered too hot to handle even in the waning years of the Motion Picture Production Code. That's all fine, as it helps The Unknown feel less like an old "warhorse" and more like a gem waiting to be discovered, even today.

If you do want to read more about the film, Sean McCourt wrote an article for this very blog about the last time it screened in the Bay Area almost six years ago.

WHERE/WHEN: 8PM tonight only at the Castro Theatre, presented by the San Francisco International Film Festival.

WHY: I'm not going to earn any "cool points" from certain purists by admitting this, but I've attended just about every live music/silent film event the San Francisco Film Society has put on in the past fourteen years, and I regret attending none of them. Last year I was quoted in an article discussing the history of these screenings, and I'm afraid I came off as a little more curmudgeonly than I really feel. It's true that some of these events (Mountain Goats and Sir Arne's Treasure; Black Francis's The Golem) are really just music concerts with a 35mm print running overhead a band playing the kinds of songs it usually does, with little attempt to connect musical and film content beyond providing inspiration for the setlist. But I can certainly enjoy that kind of experience even if I don't necessarily consider what's happening "accompaniment" or a "score". Increasingly I'm just thankful to get to see silent films in 35mm, no matter what the sound in the venue is like.

These are unique events in that you really don't know what you're going to get when you walk into them. I had no idea what to expect last Tuesday when I went to see Thao Nguyen and her band the Get Down Stay Down, one of the few instances in which the SFIFF has presented one of these events with a band I was not already something of a fan of. I sat next to my friend Dakin Hardwick, who was covering the event for the Spinning Platters website, and has written an excellent summary of the event from the perspective of a Thao fan who'd never seen a Charlie Chaplin film before. A few seats away on my other side was silent film aficionado Lincoln Specter, a film-blogging colleague whose account I agree with almost completely, although I'd note that the low-budget classic The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra is as much influenced by Soviet film trends as German ones. I found the evening tremendously entertaining, and it was great to see The Pawnshop and several short newsreels from the National Film Preservation Foundation's haul of treasures recently repatriated from New Zealand (as well as 9413), in 35mm prints. 

Neither Dakin nor Lincoln really commented on the thematic unity of all the mixed-and-matched films and videos from various moviemaking eras, which only truly became apparent in the final of three short videos directed by Lauren Tabak and starring Nguyen, which made joking reference  to one of the Hearst Movietone clips screened earlier in the program. Nguyen is clearly aware of the historical demands of show business, in which women have found themselves offered as a commodity for audience consumption; performing on a stage built for nubile dancers to provide pre-film spectacle back in 1922 was a way to reclaim female power out of such a situation.

What Nguyen and company did was, again, not what I'd call a "score" for any of the films shown, but it was totally of a piece, and worked well as an evening's entertainment. Arguably better than some prior attempts by SFIFF-selected bands to compose or adapt music for a true film accompaniment. I thought last year's Waxworks score by Mike Patton, Matthias Bossi, Scott Amerndola and William Winant was possibly the most successfully realized of these attempts, but I know there are those who disagree with me even placing it in this category. Others, like Jonathan Richman's The Phantom Carriage and Stephin Merritt's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea were, for me, largely admirable attempts that suffered a few too serious problems to truly succeed. As the latter ended, I tweeted that I "overall enjoyed the audaciousness of it all. Applied to an inarguable non-masterpiece, it doesn't fell like a wasted opportunity." I hope that Merritt learned a few lessons from that night, since he's being brought back tonight to provide the music for The Unknown, and is expected to tackle a third silent sometime down the road.

Anyway, if it doesn't work out, the professional silent film accompanists will arrive in full force (minus any organists, sadly) for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival which comes sooner than usual this year. It runs May 29 through June 1, in a cost-cutting attempt to take advantage of cheaper air and hotel rates for festival guests than traditionally found in July. There's only three feature films in this year's program I've seen in full before, the lowest such tally in many a year. All three are well worth watching, even if they're not their director's respective masterpieces: Carl Dreyer's The Parson's Widow, Yasujiro Ozu's Dragnet Girl and Buster Keaton's The Navigator. Of the others, I've long been wanting to see 35mm prints of Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Underground, and The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, and am crossing my fingers these titles screen that way. Most of the others I've never or barely heard of at all, and am excited just to experience however I can, but especially on the Castro screen with top-class accompaniment.

If you can't wait that long, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum hosts silent 16mm screenings with live musicians every Saturday and have just announced their line-ups for May and June, including their weekend-long Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival which includes showings of proven classic titles like The Big Parade, Gertie the Dinosaur and The Circus as well as many lesser-known films.

HOW: The Unknown will screen in a rare 35mm print, with live accompaniment by Stephin Merritt. It will be preceded by a Guy Maddin short film Sissy Boy Slap Party, the soundtrack for which Merritt and accordionist Daniel Handler hope to whip the audience into a frenzy of participation.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Day 13 hosts the last scheduled screening of Tangerines, a Georgian (as in former Soviet Republic of) film that I've heard nothing but praise about from festgoers who've had a chance to see it already. Among other options there's also Charlie McDowell's The One I Love, one of three programs happening over the next couple days that were added to the festival schedule after the program books went to press, as noted on Gary Meyer's new EatDrinkFilms website.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: The New Parkway in Oakland holds a special screening of a 2008 documentary called Children of the Amazon at 7:00 with the director present tonight.