Wednesday, September 28, 2016

In the Realm of the Senses (1976)

Screen capture from Criterion DVD
WHO: Nagisa Oshima wrote and directed this.

WHAT: In the Realm of the Senses is almost certainly the most-viewed Oshima film internationally, which I feel can be attributed equally to two factors: its high quality (I'd call it one of the two or three best of the dozen or so Oshima films I've managed to view, and I don't get the sense I'm alone in appreciating it narratively and formally) and its notorious reputation. The latter stems, of course, from, attacks on the film by censors over the years; it been banned from screening under obscenity laws around the world, including in parts of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany.

In Japan, where it was filmed, it to this day remains censored (though not banned, certain images including public hair remain obscured from all sanctioned home video and theatrical releases there). Oshima knew his film would be so treated in his country when he made it forty years ago, and correspondingly sent his film to be developed in labs in France to avoid "making his pure film dirty", as he would later decry the blurring and blacking out techniques that treat his film like it's porn. When my friend Adam Hartzell wrote about Oshima and In the Realm of the Senses on this blog on the occasion of an Oshima retrospective seven years ago, he noted that an uncut version of the film finally screened in Japan in 2000, but I've since learned that even that supposedly "uncut" print, while uncensoring female genitalia, still kept male genitalia obscured.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 7PM tonight only at the Roxie.

WHY: Today is the final day of the Roxie's Banned Movie Week, a brilliant idea for a series (that I hope becomes annual) inspired by Banned Books Week, which has been celebrated in libraries and schools during the final week in September since 1982. I highlight this screening on my blog today not only because In the Realm of the Senses is a terrific movie deserving of attention, but because it gives me an excuse to mention that after over ten years working for the San Francisco Public Library in various capacities, I've left that position and am now working for another local library system. My hours and responsibilities have increased somewhat, so I'm not certain I'll be able to keep up the rate of posting on this blog that I've been used to maintaining over the years (sometimes it's been a post per day or more, though there have been frequent periods where'd I'd post no more than once in a month; so far I've never gotten less frequent than that, but I can't guarantee that'll remain true). I still plan to be involved, on a strictly volunteer basis, in the ATA@SFPL group which, for over a year and a half now, has been organizing and hosting screenings of film prints from the SFPL 16mm collection. I wrote a bit about this group on this blog last year, and though I'm not certain what we'll be showing at our next expected screening in December, I'm sure we'll know pretty soon; our group's next event won't actually involve SFPL prints at all, but will be a short presentation at Other Cinema on Saturday November 19, in which we'll discuss the project and show a couple prints owned by local filmmakers whose work we became aware of during our archival explorations: Rick Goldsmith's Anatomy of a Mural and Christian Schiess's Luminauts.

In addition to Banned Movie Week, the Roxie is currently hosting the final few days of the SF Latino Film Festival, a couple digital screenings of anime classics, and the opening week-long runs of new releases like Danny Says and Spa Night to close out September. Highlights of October include a 35mm showing of Point Blank, two MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS showings including a new DCP of Stand By Me paired with a 35mm print of Creepshow and a double-bill of truly neglected sequels, the Walter Murch-directed Return To Oz and my favorite George Miller film Babe: Pig in the City. Both of those are also 35mm, as is the same day's locally-made indie Treasure Island. It's not yet determined whether Takashi Miike's (arguably) sickest film Ichi The Killer will screen as DCP or 35mm print on October 27th, the formats for what may be the month's most exciting series, a horror showcase featuring only films directed by women, have been announced. Expect 35mm prints of Katheryn Bigelow's vampire classic Near Dark and the late Antonia Bird's unbelievable Ravenous, and DCP showings of (I believe) natively-digital features The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears, The Babadook, and Lyle. Only Gloria Katz's Messiah of Evil and Karyn Kusama's Jennifer's Body will be shown on a format other than how they were filmed, and even the latter was, I understand, a hybrid 35mm & digital production.

HOW: In the Realm of the Senses screens as a 35mm print.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Screen capture from Cinema Guild DVD of Los Angeles Plays Itself
WHO: Robert Aldrich directed this. It was his fifth feature film as a director, after a storied career as an assistant director on films like The Story of G.I. Joe for William Wellman, Force of Evil for Abraham Polonsky, and M and The Prowler for Joseph Losey.

WHAT: When I think of Kiss Me Deadly I always think of one of my mentors in cinephilia Damien Bona, who I met through an online film discussion forum about eighteen years ago, and (only once) in person thirteen years ago. He considered Aldrich's film not only the greatest of all films noir but also one of the ten greatest films of all time. Bona died in 2012 and a memorial website has republished a list of his 100 favorite films, as well as his top ten with commentary, in which he calls Kiss Me Deadly "Brutal, hilarious, groundbreaking and impudent. Both Aldrich's visual style and his send-up of American machismo are absolutely audacious. Irresistible." He wrote more on the film, and specifically about Cloris Leachman's first-ever film appearance, which happened to be in this film, in his book Opening Shots: The Unusual, Unexpected, Potentially Career-threatening First Roles that Launched the Careers of 70 Hollywood Stars, which I unfortunately do not have handy to quote. In a tome filled with embarrassing debuts, Leachman's stands out as one of the most fortunate beginnings ever to befall a future star. Kiss Me Deadly is indeed a spectacular film worth revisiting frequently.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens tonight only at 8PM at the Castro Theatre

WHY: I don't want to give away anything about Kiss Me Deadly that might mar the experience for a first-time-viewer, but anyone who's seen it knows why it's the perfect choice for programmer Elliot Lavine's final double-bill at the Castro (along with the 1951 Arch Oboler post-apocalyptic thriller Five). If you hadn't heard by now, Lavine, an ace movie-selector best known for his longstanding relationship with the Roxie Theatre, but who had programmed regularly at other places including Auctions By the Bay, the California and the Castro, is moving to Portland. It was unsurprising that Mick LaSalle, in his recent article about Lavine's Frisco Bay departure, went so far as to call him our "last great programmer"; anyone who pays close attention knows that LaSalle favors Lavine's programming over all other local repertory. Though I consider the Chronicle headline an insult to a minimum of a half-dozen other local film bookers, there's no question that Lavine's particular style gelled particularly well with a certain portion of Frisco Bay cinephilia, and that his imaginative sensibility will be sorely missed.

Kiss Me Deadly was in 1999 inducted into the National Film Registry, the Library of Congress's annually-growing list of "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" American moving image works. The range of films included on the list is impressively varied; that year also saw the induction of the 1914 ethnographic documentary In the Land of the War Canoes, the 1936 Chevrolet-sponsored short Master Hands, and, on its first year of eligibility, Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing as well as twenty-one other films from pretty much every era and mode of American filmmaking.

This Friday is the last day for the general public to submit its suggestions of films to enter the Registry in 2016. Anyone can nominate up to 50 different titles for potential inclusion on the registry. In the past I've sent my list in privately, but I see no reason not to share it on my blog this year. In fact, I even solicited suggestions from my twitter followers for titles they thought deserved induction this year, which I'd add to my list in exchange for their vote for a film that I feel particularly merits it: San Francisco beat poet Christopher Maclaine's 1953 experimental masterpiece The End (which prefigures Kiss Me Deadly in a few ways itself, come to think of it).

Without further ado, here are forty-nine of the fifty titles I plan to submit to the Library of Congress on Friday. If you want to follow my suit and nominate this whole slate, there's nothing stopping you! Or pick and choose titles you feel are worthy and add your own suggestions to the mix. I've reserved the fiftieth slot on my list for another suggestion (within reason) from one of my blog readers who agrees to vote for The End (1953), so leave a comment if you want to do that.

1. The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985). Clay animation pioneer Will Vinton is as yet unrepresented on the Registry list. One might argue for one of his shorts having a better shot at induction, but this feature film, with its astonishing "Mysterious Stranger" and delightful "Adam and Eve" sequences is my pick.

2. The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943). Deanna Durbin was one of the biggest stars of her era, and yet none of her films are on the Registry. This great one is set (for the most part) in San Francisco, and was mostly directed by an uncredited Jean Renoir, whose Hollywood years haven't been acknowledged on the Registry as yet either (his better-known French years are of course ineligible).

3. Beggars of Life (1928). Like Renoir, Louise Brooks is best known for her European career, which is surely why she hasn't been added to the Registry in its 26 years of existence. Unlike Renoir, she was a Kansas native whose absence seems shocking. This is my favorite of her American films.

4. Belfast, Maine (1999). I haven't seen this Frederick Wiseman documentary but one of my twitter followers vouches strongly for it and agreed to vote for The End (1953) if I included it in my submission. I believe Wiseman was the first documentarian to see two of his films (High School in 1989 and Hospital in 1994) enter the Registry, but hasn't had any new inductions since then.

5. Betty Tells Her Story (1972). Another twitter-follower suggestion I haven't seen, but this short directed by Liane Brandon sounds eminently fascinating and worthy of inclusion as "one of the earliest films of the modern Women's Movement".

6. Black Panthers (1968). I'm not sure this short documentary (sometimes known as Huey) directed by Agnès Varda while she was in the Bay Area is technically eligible, as it's generally considered a French film. But I believe it was shot entirely in Oakland and captures an important and still-relevant moment in American history. It screens with other Varda films on the opening weekend of the newly-expanded SFMOMA's just-announced inaugural film screening program. More on that on this blog later.

7. Blackie the Wonder Horse Swims the Golden Gate (1938). Another Frisco Bay non-fiction work, and another twitter-follower suggestion. This time it's one I've seen (projected in 16mm by Stephen Parr of Oddball Films) and it's also available on youtube.

8. Blow-Out (1981). To me, the single-most shocking absence from the National Film Registry, at least among living filmmakers, is Brian De Palma. I always include a few of his films on my submission lists. This one is surely one of his greatest and most haunting films.

9. Carlito's Way (1993). Other years I included the famous Scarface remake, but after seeing the director describe this as his best film in the recent De Palma documentary a few months ago, I feel it makes more sense to stump for this follow-up collaboration with Al Pacino. It would also mark screenwriter David Koepp's first appearance on the Registry.

10. Carrie (1976). My third and final De Palma suggestion this year. Such an important American social and aesthetic statement, and a huge commercial hit to boot. I'm a little shocked it hasn't been inducted before.

11. Christmas Holiday (1944). Another terrific Deanna Durbin picture, this one uncharacteristically somber and adult, belying its sweet-sounding title.

12. The Dot and the Line (1965). Possibly the best cartoon made by Chuck Jones after he left the Warner Brothers studio for MGM, this was another twitter-follower suggestion.

13. The End (1953). One of the greatest films of all time, according to me and a few other people. I talked about it on the Cinephiliacs podcast last year.

14. The Fall of the I-Hotel (1983). This documentary about San Francisco's history of eviction and protest, as crystallized in one landmark battle on the edge of Chinatown, is probably the best film I've seen as part of a project I've participated in over the past year and a half going through the San Francisco Public Library 16mm collection. I wrote the note for it here. Our next screening, incidentally, is Alain Resnais's Night and Fog on September 13; I also wrote this program note.

15. Fragment of Seeking (1946). Curtis Harrington is another figure absent from the Registry thus far. I might pick one of his later, more commercial features like Night Tide, but this early short, which may beat out Kenneth Anger's 1947 Fireworks as a gay filmmaker's avant-garde debut, seems more "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

16. A Girl In Every Port (1928). Another option for a Louise Brooks film, it would also become the first silent-era Howard Hawks film on the Registry.

17. The Good Bad Man (1916). I'm not sure why no film directed by the prolific and highly influential Allan Dwan has made it onto the Registry in 26 years. I'm not sure this little-known early Douglas Fairbanks Western is the most likely of his films to become inducted, but it's wonderful and would be a great choice in my opinion, especially in its centennial year.

18. Heaven's Gate (1980). In the year that director Michael Cimino died, I think it would be a particularly fitting tribute for his notorious but masterful third feature film to finally enter the Registry (The Deer Hunter was inducted way back in 1996). Bonus: A great Isabelle Huppert performance would be entered as well.

19. High-Diving Hare (1949). Chuck Jones, Robert Clampett, Tex Avery and Frank Tashlin are all represented in the National Film Registry. (Jones, at least, has multiple films inducted.) This leaves Friz Freleng as the most major of the "Termite Terrace" animation directors without a film on the list. This Bugs Bunny cartoon is my personal favorite of his films, and would also mark Yosemite Sam's first appearance.

20. It Started With Eve (1941). My third and final Deanna Durbin suggestion this year (I'd include His Butler's Sister as well except that a Frank Borzage-directed film was inducted last year). A magical romantic comedy also starring Charles Laughton, it's probably the most characteristic of her great films I've seen so far, and would be an ideal "populist" choice.

22. The Lady of the Pavements (1929). Mexican-American star Lupe Velez is another figure thus-far left out of the Registry. Her starring role in this late D.W. Griffith silent film is perhaps her best showcase.

22. M (1951). Joseph Losey is another American (Wisconsin-born) whose Hollywood career was interrupted (in this case by McCarthyism) but who is too important a figure to be missing from the Registry entirely. I'm probably one of the few people who actually slightly prefers his Los Angeles remake to Fritz Lang's Berlin classic original, but I don't think it's outlandish to put it forth for posterity in this way. 

23. The Man Who Laughs (1928). Though German-exile star Conrad Veidt does appear on the Registry in his most famous talking role, as a villain in Casablanca, this heroic role would be a wonderful addition to the list. Fellow emigre Paul Leni only directed a few films in Hollywood but this is a great one and would be an ideal entry to the NFR.

24. Matewan (1987). This is another twitter-suggestion that I (shamefully) have yet to see for myself. But I understand it's one of the great dramatizations of political history made in my lifetime. It would only be director John Sayles' second film on the Registry, after his debut Return of the Secaucus 7 was inducted in 1997.

25. Mikey & Nicky (1976). There's no denying that Elaine May is a national treasure. So it's strange that she's almost completely missing from the National Film Registry- unless her walk-on role in The Graduate (inducted in 1996) and her uncredited writing on Tootsie (inducted in 1998) count. I'm putting forth a couple of her films as writer-director on my suggestion list this year. Mikey & Nicky is my personal favorite of her films.

26. Murder in the Rue Morgue (1932). French-American director Robert Florey is not the most respectable of Hollywood auteurs; he was extremely prolific but mostly in B-pictures. But he deserves a slot in the Registry and this Bela Lugosi-starring Universal horror movie feels like his best shot. I love it.

27. A New Leaf (1971). My other Elaine May suggestion is perhaps more likely as a debut induction since it's a) a comedy, the genre which she's best known for and b) features her tremendous acting skill as well.

28. Nitrate Kisses (1992). Barbara Hammer's absence from the National Film Registry grows more glaring with each passing year. I'm not sure if this extremely moving film, which features nudity of a decidedly non-pornographic nature, is the most likely of hers to gain her entry to the list, but I'd love to see it inducted.

29. Paris Is Burning (1990). Jennie Livingston's documentary on the New York City "ball" scene perhaps most famous for inspiring Madonna's "Vogue" video has been frequently mentioned by others as a prime candidate for NFR inclusion, and I'll happily join this campaign.

30. Pigs Is Pigs (1937). Another Friz Freleng cartoon suggestion. This one features perhaps the most sinister and harrowing situation ever shown in a mainstream animated short.

31. Pomo Shaman (1964). A documentary record of shaman Essie Parrish doing her healing ceremony in California. Beautifully made by photographer and filmmaker William R Heick with assistance from anthropologists David W Peri and Robert Walter Wharton, and from cinematographer Gordon Mueller. It should be available to view here.

32. The Prowler (1951) My "other" Joseph Losey suggestion this year, in case M seems too off-the-radar. This gripping and socially conscious noir is available in a terrific restoration from Frisco Bay's own Film Noir Foundation. Either choice puts another Robert Aldrich-assistant-directed film onto the Registry, joining the Wellman and Polonsky films mentioned at the top of this post.

33. Reflections of Evil (2002). I have no real expectation that a Damon Packard film, much less one as brilliantly twisted as this, might make it to the Registry. But I have to try.

34. Retrospectroscope (1996). Even if acclaimed filmmaker Kerry Laitala wasn't my girlfriend I'd think this mesmerizing 16mm film based on a paracinematic sculpture of the same title merited any marker of posterity; I saw it well before we started dating anyway. I'm sure I'm not the only one voting for a friend's film. Anyway, it's screened at many festivals and micro cinemas and is discussed thoroughly in 2013 book Speaking Directly: Oral Histories of the Moving Image.

35. Rich Kids (1979). 91-year-old Robert M, Young has writing credits on two Registry inductees, Nothing But A Man (inducted 1993) and To Fly! (inducted 1995). But no film he's directed has made it on the list. This beautifully-observed view of teenagehood would make a fine addition, in my opinion.

36. Rumble Fish (1983). Another twitter-follower suggestion, and one I'm particularly pleased to follow. Director Francis Ford Coppola has seen four films enter the Registry, but none since Apocalypse Now was entered in 2000, all from the 1970s, and none featuring this Stewart Copeland score and this cast. Phenomenal.

37. Rushmore (1998). Also a twitter-follower suggestion I can really get behind. It's the first Wes Anderson film I (and many others) ever saw back when it was released, and it's still in many ways my favorite. Definitely my pick to be Anderson's debut NFR entry.

38. Sherlock Holmes (1916). This one's more "culturally, historically" than "aesthetically" significant, but it really is the former, as the only filmed record of William Gillette, in his day the definitive performer of the famous Arthur Conan Doyle character on stage. It was considered lost for nearly a century before re-debuting at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival last year.

39. Silver Lode (1954). My final twitter-follower suggestion is another Allan Dwan film, but in this case one I haven't seen yet. Any Dwan film that has a good shot of being inducted, I can get behind.

40. Some Came Running (1958). Vincente Minnelli may be well represented on the NFR (my quick count shows he directed at least five films listed), but his non-musicals are still sorely under-represented, and will be until this remarkable achievement (for Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Shirly MacLaine as well) gets inducted.

41. Sonata For Pen, Brush & Ruler (1968). Few films consist of as much concentrated, pure visual beauty as this outstanding short made by experimental animator Barry Spinello. It happens to screen October 19th as part of the long-missed Alternative Visions program, according to the new BAMPFA print calendar.

42. Southern Comfort (1981). There may be other Walter Hill films better poised to be the director's Registry debut, but this one, which I saw for the first time at the New Mission earlier this year, strikes me as a pretty good candidate, given its great cast, story and attention to the specifics of two clashing milieus: "weekend warrior" reservist soldiers and reclusive Bayou dwellers that could pass for subjects of a Les Blank documentary.

43. Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). Simply, Buster Keaton's best film not yet entered into the NFR. No further argument needed.

44. Take Off (1972). Gunvor Nelson may be too often thought of as Swedish to feel deserving of a film in the Registry. I disagree, especially considering she was living in the Bay Area when she made many of her best short films. This one is a playful, feminist gem and a tour de force of optical printing.

45. Tribulation 99 (1991). Not necessarily my own personal favorite of Craig Baldwin's culture jamming radical manifestos (that would be the following year's ¡O No Coronado!) but almost certainly the one most likely to go down in history as a major statement at a major moment by a major filmmaker (admittedly one I'm friendly with personally). So lets start the process as soon as possible!

46. Underworld, USA (1961). No Sam Fuller films have been placed on the Registry since Shock Corridor twenty years ago. This gangland saga would be my first choice for a second selection from his filmography. It's bold, intense, and influential, and nobody but Fuller could've made it.

47. Wagon Master (1950). It may seem that John Ford has been amply honored by the National Film Registry, with more than a handful of films selected from among his storied career. But I feel there's room for at least one more, especially this one with its yearning for an America in which good people from different backgrounds cooperate for a common purpose.

48. Wanda (1970). Barbara Loden famously only directed one film but it's a doozy and its penultimate placement on this list shouldn't imply anything other than W's late placement in the alphabet. If I could only vote for five and not fifty titles, it'd still make the cut.

49. You Oughta Be In Pictures (1940). My third Friz Freleng selection is the semi-autobiographical retelling of his straying from the Warner Brothers lot to take a contract with MGM between 1937 and 1939, using Daffy Duck (interacting in a live-action environment) as his avatar.

Let me know what you'd pick in the comments!

HOW: Kiss Me Deadly and Five screen together, both from 35mm prints.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

How To Survive A Plague (2012)

Screen capture from official trailer
WHO: Directed, co-written and co-produced by journalist David France- absolutely not to be confused with 2016 Presidential non-candidate David French.

WHAT: Thirty days ago it was the 35th anniversary of the first official reports on what would soon be known to be HIV/AIDS. They were presented by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention on June 5, 1981 and subsequently reported on by the media; the first New York Times article was July 3, 1981. Since that time an estimated 36 million people around the world have died as a result of the disease. It's believed that an even greater number live with HIV today, and that fewer than half of them have access to the anti-retroviral medicines that can keep them in good health. As grim as these numbers are, they represent a huge amount of progress. Rates of transmission and death are decreasing on every continent. Treatment availability is on the upswing nearly everywhere. For this we must thank not just the doctors and scientists fighting the disease, but also the activists who pushed against the homophobia of governments, the media, and even parts of the medical industry, to make HIV/AIDS a priority.

How To Survive a Plague is one of the most inspiring documentaries about political activism ever made. It demonstrates the immense creativity and passion of activists fighting for an HIV/AIDS cure, vaccine, and better treatment in a most immediate, intimate style. The appearance of HIV/AIDS coincided with the invention of the video camcorder, which for the first time allowed individual citizen/journalists to record hours of audio/video footage completely independently (previous video recording devices required a separate technician to handle sound recording). In an age of convenient camera-phones we take for granted how revolutionary this development was for democratizing media.

How to Survive a Plague director David France collected thousands of fellow activists' tapes of highly creative ACT UP and TAG demonstrations and passionate gatherings, and has weaved the highlights together into a coherent and persuasive story of the ten years of struggle that led to the release of protease inhibitors, combination therapy and the first significant drop in the AIDS death rate. It's a remarkable document of the gay community rising to meet a collective challenge, featuring footage that will feel like a predecessor to powerful protest movements of the 21st century. It's the kind of movie that can bring a spark to any viewer's personal activist spirit.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 7PM this evening only at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts screening room.

WHY: I can hardly think of a better Frisco Bay venue in which to see How to Survive a Plague, as a particularly moving moment in the documentary (pictured in the above screen shot) occurred a hop, skip and a jump away at the Moscone Center, where Peter Staley enlisted a vast hall filled with convention-goers into participating in a powerful activist moment. Activism can sometimes take the form of a small, simple, but powerful act of solidarity. No wonder the Oscar-nominated feature screens in conjunction with the YBCA's current art-as-activistm-oriented exhibit Take This Hammer, named for a 1964 documentary featuring James Baldwin which played in the YBCA screening room a couple of years ago, and which is now looped in the gallery lobby daily during open hours (free for anyone to view, not just on a day like today when the entire exhibit is open to the public at no cost). Art critic Ben Davis has contrasted the exhibit against the more ballyhooed re-opened SFMOMA across the street, by calling it a "raw, woolly, sometimes inspiring and disturbing show, representing struggles that are important to think about if you don’t want to become entirely cynical about the future of art or the future of the city."

I have only taken a bit of Take This Hammer in myself thus far, but I already feel galvanized in small but profound ways by it; while at YBCA to view Chantal Akerman's No Home Movie last may my girlfriend Kerry Laitala picked up a poster made by the incredible San Francisco Poster Syndicate, which was passing out political art to attendees that evening. Without a good place to display it so that her neighbors could see, she asked if I'd hang it in my window. Little did I know that just a couple weeks later the subject of the poster would pass underneath it while campaigning with Jane Kim in my neighborhood. Did he see it? Who knows. But it made me all the happier that I was able to vote for him (and for Kim) in the California primary last month. Neither candidate is perfect of course, but I'll be happy to support Kim in November as well, and I hope that Sanders' influence is felt in platform that the Democratic nominee campaigns under between now and then (and of course I will vote for Clinton, given the alternative). I'm pretty sure that it's just a coincidence that Kerry was honored to be named to the YBCA 100 shortly after our visit, but it's certainly a happy one.

I believe this is the final Take This Hammer-inspired event in the YBCA screening room. Today there is also a series of films in conjunction with another YBCA exhibit The Ocean After Nature. Starting July 15th, the venue becomes the surrogate host for its neighbor the Jewish Museum's screening series of Stanley Kubrick films accompanying its current exhibit of the master's props, costumes, designs, etc. YBCA screens all his black-and-white films through July. Rumor has it that the Alamo Drafthouse will show the color films in August, but I have yet to see a schedule for those. Meanwhile, that month, YBCA hosts archivist Jack Stevenson as he puts the spotlight on San Francisco's erotic filmmaking history with a screening of Randy, the Electric Lady.

HOW: Screens as a video; all the footage in the film was captured by video cameras of various generations.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Golden Chance (1915)

Screen capture from Image DVD
WHO: Cecil B. DeMille directed, produced, edited and (with Jeanie Macpherson) co-wrote this film.

WHAT: This is one of my very favorite DeMille pictures, and I even selected it as object of study for a collaborative blogging project several years ago (that seems to have propagated an image to the wikipedia page for Japanese actor Yutake Abe, if nothing else more lasting). Later that year, my friend Laura Horak wrote an article about it and a pair of other Cecil B. DeMille films (as well as one directed by his brother William) released on DVD for The Moving Image journal. Here's an excerpt from her article:
The story follows Mary Denby (Cleo Ridgely), a "Cinderella of the Lower East Side," who escapes from grueling tenement life and her abusive husband, Steve (Horace B. Carpenter), for one magical night. The film is surprisingly explicit about the way money and sex are intertwined. Seeking work as a seamstress, Mary enters Mr. and Mrs. Hillary's "House of Enchantment," where they convince her to play the part of a socialite for a night, unaware that her real purpose is to charm a young millionaire, Roger Manning (Wallace Reid), into investing in Mr. Hillary's business venture. At first, Mary is happy to play her role in exchange for one night of luxurious clothes, shoes, and jewelry but, even after suspecting the nature of the exchange, desperate poverty forces her to accept the money. 
WHERE/WHEN: Screens tonight only at the Edison Theatre in Niles, CA, as part of the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival.

WHY: The Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, while perhaps not as glamorous or public-transit-accessible (or expensive!) as the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, deserves equal consideration from Frisco Bay silent film fans. Its film programming is in many ways just as strong- and for film purists stronger -, its musical accompaniments not as flashy but equally adept and professional, and its extra features, including a walking tour and a train ride, represent a world away from the hustle and bustle of Castro Street.

Additional screenings at this year's festival include rarities and proven favorites from the Essanay Studios which made Niles a movie hub for a few years a century ago, and a pair of films starring the Gish sisters, Nell Gwyn with forgotten Dorothy and a masterpiece (directed by Swedish import auteur Victor Seastrom) The Scarlet Letter with the legendary Lillian.

Of this year's festival screenings, I'm probably most interested in seeing Behind the Front, a Wallace Beery war film whose title seems to refer to the 1919 film that was the big discovery of the SF Silent Film Festival earlier this month for me and for quite a few other festgoers, Behind the Door. Beery played a villain in that, and stole the show out from under Louise Brooks in the festival opener Beggars of Life. I'm especially anxious to see it because it screens with Broncho Billy and the Bandit's Secret, a 35mm made-in-Niles production released just last year, but still unscreened in San Francisco (it's hard to find venues willing and able to show a modern-day 35mm silent short film). 

If you can't make it this weekend, the July Niles schedule has been announced and includes a Gary Cooper Western, a Clara Bow flapper film, a Lon Chaney circus tragedy, and much, much, much more. July schedules for the Stanford, the Castro, YBCA and BAMPFA are also online, so start planning your month if you haven't already!

HOW: Screens from a tinted 16mm print, along with 35mm prints of 2 Niles-produced shorts Broncho Billy's Wild Ride and Slippery Slim and the Impersonator, all with live keyboard accompaniment from Jon Mirsalis.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Nanook of the North (1922)

Screen capture from Music Box Films DVD of The Story of Film
WHO: Robert Flaherty directed this. He was also a producer and (uncredited) writer and cinematographer on the piece.

WHAT: The last time I watched Robert Flaherty's seminal Nanook of the North I was sitting in on a City College of San Francisco course taught by Ira Rothstein. He introduced the showing with a quote from Jean-Luc Godard on fiction or "narrative" films: that they are "nothing more than documentaries of actors at work."

One might say the same thing about non-fiction or "documentary" films as well (I use quotes around the word "documentary" because the term was not in use at the time Nanook of the North was made). Acting is not just merely a profession, marked by its connection to training facilities and professional guilds.  It's also an action that each of us has learned to perform to make it through the varied situations of the modern world.  And when we are conscious that there is a camera trained upon us, we tend to "act" differently than we otherwise would, whether we want to or not.  If the photographer explicitly asks us to pose or to perform a certain action, we're all the more likely to be pulled out of the actions we would take were a camera not present; we may attempt to conform to the requester's expressed wishes, or else rebel against them, but it becomes difficult if not impossible to act as we would if we didn't know the camera was there.

As one learns when watching Claude Massot's 1988 documentary Nanook Revisited (available on the Flicker Alley Blu-Ray edition of Flaherty's film), Nanook of the North was made with the hearty cooperation of its Inuit subjects.  Indeed Allakariallak, the actor who played the title character (Nanook was not his real name) was delighted to comply with his director's requests, which included: acting as if he had not heard a phonograph record before, when in fact he had, and engaging in a walrus hunt using methods that he and his fellow tribesmen had not employed for years - which Erik Barnouw seems to imply was actually an idea generated by Allakariallak himself, knowing it would be in sync with Flaherty's own aims in encasing in the amber of celluloid film the singular traditions of the Inuits.  

It's often noted that Nanook and its offspring like Chang (Cooper & Shoedsack, 1927) are not "pure" documentaries because the actions of their subjects were not merely observed and captured, but directed by their makers, and because they're edited, with the help of title cards, into a narrative form that distorts fact in the service of adventure and excitement (and, say the cynical, box-office). But is there not documentary value in seeing people perform tasks that, even if they may be obsolete on a day-to-day basis, are still in their living muscle memory? Allakariallak may or may not have ever hunted walrus without a rifle himself, but at the very least he'd known people who'd had no other option, and was a far more authentic choice to do so on screen than any Hollywood actor would have been.  As Barnouw wrote about the Inuits involved in the film: "Unquestionably the film reflected their image of their traditional life."

WHERE/WHEN: Nanook of the North screens today only at the Castro Theatre, at 1:45 PM, presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

WHY: Though I haven't seen the shorts screening as part of the Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema program launching the 21st SFSFF's final day, nor the Hal Roach two-reeler What's the World Coming To?, which plays as part of the Girls Will Be Boys noon program, I've seen all five "feature-length" films screening today: Ernst Lubitsch's I Don't Wan't To Be a Man (the other piece of the aforementioned gender-bending showcase), Nanook of the North, Fritz Lang's haunting Destiny, Rene Clair's final silent Les Deux Timides and the mindblowing Douglas Fairbanks extravaganza (and Victor Fleming's directorial debut) When the Clouds Roll By, though of these only Les Deux Timides in a cinema with live musical accompaniment.  If I could see only one of them again today (and I'm so grateful that this is not so) it would be Nanook. Though I'm excited to finally see the Lubitsch, Lang and Fleming on the Castro screen with an audience, I remember them all (and it's been quite a while, especially for Destiny) as films with incredible scenes rather than as incredible films from start to finish. Nanook is a more consistent, coherent work despite its controversial aspects.

Despite being the most famous of today's films, it also seems the least likely candidate to screen again in a Frisco Bay venue any time soon. I could picture When the Clouds Roll By appearing at the Stanford Theatre, for instance (Victor Fleming seems pretty popular there; his most famous film Gone With the Wind screens July 1-3 to celebrate Olivia de Havilland's 100th birthday). And it's been long enough since the last Lubitsch, Lang, and especially Clair retrospectives at BAMPFA that I wouldn't be so surprised to see their films show up there (though I wouldn't count on it either). Nanook of the North could appear as well, but since it's screening SFSFF as a BAMPFA co-presentation I rather doubt it would be soon.

Probably the most likely venue to show any of these films again is the most consistent silent film venue around: the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum's Edison Theatre, the same room where Charlie Chaplin watched movies over 101 years ago. Next weekend the Edison will play host to two days and one night full of Chaplin film screenings as well as a Chaplin look-alike contest on Sunday in honor of the annual Niles, CA Charlie Chaplin Days. The following weekend Chaplin's The Vagabond opens a four-film program of comedy shorts also including a Charley Chase film, a Laurel & Hardy, and Buster Keaton's Cops (in case you missed it at SFSFF yesterday), all in 16mm with live piano accompaniment from Judith Rosenberg. And the final weekend of June is given over to the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, whose line-up seems especially strong this time around, with an opening night showing of my favorite early Cecil B. DeMille drama The Golden Chance (RIP Bob Birchard), a Saturday evening show including this year's SFSFF MVP Wallace Beery in Behind the Front, and a Gish-filled Sunday afternoon with Dorothy in Nell Gwyn followed by her better-remembered sister Lillian in the excellent Victor Seastrom adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. Not to mention a plethora of one-and two-reelers shot in Niles and/or other Essanay locations, including the 2015 throwback Broncho Billy and the Bandit's Secret, which was shot in the area by a modern crew using vintage equipment. Diana Serra Carey (the former silent-era child star Baby Peggy) is among the cast members.

But I suspect Niles is not likely to show Nanook of the North in the near future, if only because it just screened there this past February and repeats of that sort are rare for this venue.

HOW: Nanook of the North screens via a 35mm print, with live musical accompaniment from the Matti Bye Ensemble.