Thursday, August 6, 2015

Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

WHO: Robert Montgomery directed and starred in this film, shortly after doing the same in the notorious experiment Lady In The Lake, which was filmed entirely from the perspective of the lead character. This follow-up was not.

WHAT: I haven't seen Ride the Pink Horse yet, but I can't wait to. I first came across the title perusing Academy Award nominee lists; Thomas Gomez was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in this film, by some measures the chronologically first on a short list of Hispanic nominees over the years. Then in 2011 Elliot Lavine showed it in his "I Wake Up Dreaming" series at the Roxie and Steve Seid screened it as part of his "American Noir in Mexico" Pacific Film Archive series, and though I missed both showings I heard from many that it was a standout noir. So I wasn't all that surprised when Criterion added it to its collection despite its non-canonical status. Perhaps it's part of a shifting canon, however. Dennis Harvey guesses that it "may be the best border-town noir predating Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil" in his essential 48hills article this week.

WHERE/WHEN: 7:30 PM tonight only at the Castro Theatre, as part of I Wake Up Dreaming 2015.

WHY: Harvey's article gives a much better explanation of Elliot Lavine's 5-Thursday noir series, and why it's at the Castro Theatre rather than Lavine's traditional curatorial home the Roxie, than I would be able to. Pam Grady has also written a generous preview. As someone whose cinephilia blossomed at the tail end of Lavine's original stint at the Roxie, and whose interest in noir was stoked more at the Castro than at that venue, I'm not the ideal person to talk about the full importance of his past programming glories. I take it on faith that a huge part of the current fashion for noir, especially in San Francisco, is thanks to his efforts. But testimonials to this fact can come from the most unlikely places. I happen to have just read Patton Oswalt's new(ish) book Silver Screen Fiend, which is an oddly ambivalent recounting of the famous comedian's four years of obsessive moviegoing in Los Angeles. Mostly. But he occasionally hints at the role that San Francisco screenings played in his cinemania, and rather comes out and says it (at the risk of diminishing his overall, LA-centric thesis) on page 10:
I became addicted to film noir during the three years I lived in San Francisco, when the Roxie Theater on Sixteenth Street would do its noir festival every spring. I saw H. Bruce Humberstone's brilliant I Wake Up Screaming in 1993. That scene where psycho policeman Laird Cregar stares, openmouthed and turtle-eyes, as the film of his now-dead, unattainable dream girl plays in the smoky interrogation room? The one he's using to torment slick, grinning Victor Mature, hoping to railroad the poor bastard into the electric chair? That got me. Wow, did that get me.
Of course Oswalt's describing a scene from the film that inspired the name of Lavine's current series, from a screening that Lavine undoubtedly programmed and perhaps introduced. His taste was a formative influence on the aesthetic sensibilities of a guy who now has well over 2 million twitter followers. I Wake Up Screaming isn't one of the twelve titles Lavine's offering up for his first gig at the Castro, but from what I've seen of and heard about the selections, I'm not going to want to miss very many of the showings. The first three Thursdays are entirely populated by films I've never seen before, though some of them (especially Ride the Pink Horse, So Dark the Night and the Frisco-set Chinatown at Midnight) have been on my must-watch lists for a long time. I've seen four of the five films playing the final two weeks of the series, and all at the Roxie as part of Lavine double-bills. My favorite of the four is definitely Jacques Tourneur's Nightfall, followed by Stanley Kubrick's Killer's Kiss, which just might be the first noir I ever saw at the Roxie. The one I haven't seen yet is Dementia, but I've been kicking myself for missing it when Lavine last programmed it over four years ago, and I'm thrilled to get another chance. 

HOW: All screenings in I Wake Up Dreaming 2015 are sourced from 35mm prints. Ride the Pink Horse plays on a double-bill with So Dark the Night.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Stalker (1979)

WHO: Andrei Tarkovsky directed this, as well as contributing to the screenplay and production design. It was his last completed film to be made within the Soviet Union.

WHAT: Surely the most challenging film still impressively hanging on to a spot on the imdb's Top 250 list of films as ranked by users of the popular (and, for the most part, populist) movie website. It ranks 193 there, just behind The Best Years of Our Lives and ahead of Shutter Island, for what it's worth. The only other Tarkovsky film on the list is currently Solaris, barely clinging to the bottom at #250 for now. It's a film I waited years to see on the big screen, finally doing so in 2009 at SFMOMA. (It was worth the wait.) Since then at least one key collaborator on the film has died: Boris Strugatsky, who co-wrote the screenplay based on his and his brother Arkadiy's quite-different science-fiction novel Roadside Picnic. Stalker was rated among the top ten greatest by 39 critics and 14 film directors, placing it in the top 30 films on both the critics' and directors' 2012 Sight and Sound lists of all-time great films. And it is the subject of an unusual but very readable monograph by Geoff Dyer entitled Zona, also published in 2012. Though I'm not sure why Dyer feels it's important to diffuse accusations of being overly invested in The Art Film by describing how bored he was watching L'Avventura early in the book, he recovers and proceeds to provide intriguing anecdotes and insights. For instance, he talks about tracking down screenings of Stalker in whatever city he happened to be living in, reflecting on "the possibility of cinema as semipermanent pilgrimage site" in one of his footnotes that takes over the main body of the text:
That list of things and people I won't watch on TV does not stop at Top Gear and Jeremy Clarkson. It also includes....Stalker. One cannot watch Stalker on TV for the simple reason that the Zone is cinema; it does not even exist on telly. The prohibition extends beyond Stalker, to anything that has any cinematic value. It doesn't matter if the TV is HD: great cinema must be projected. It is the difference, as John Berger puts it, between watching the sky ('from where else would film stars come if not from a film sky?') and peering into a cupboard.
WHERE/WHEN: Screens tonight at the Pacific Film Archive at 7:30 PM.

WHY: There had been no 35mm presentations of Stalker in a Frisco Bay cinema between the 2009 SFMOMA screenings and this past Thursday, when it screened as part of the Pacific Film Archive's Tarkovsky retrospective. Perhaps this is why the screening sold out well in advance, and another screening (tonight's) added to the PFA's final week of showings at it current "temporary" (for the past 16+ years) space at 2575 Bancroft, before re-opening nearer to Shattuck Street early in 2016. For those of us who began frequenting the PFA after its move out of the Berkeley Art Museum basement in the late 1990s, this is a site of a great deal of nostalgia (to borrow another Tarkovsky title), and the place where we saw some of the greatest films we've ever seen, in some cases for the only time.

A sampling of distinguished guests who have graced this humble room might include Budd Boetticher, Donald Richie, Anthony Slide, Midori Sawato, Gus Van Sant, Sogo Ishii, Frederick Wiseman, Hedy Honigmann, Charles Burnett, Walter Murch, Michel Brault, Kim Longinotto, Clint Eastwood, Gunvor Nelson, Martin Reijtman, Kazuo Hara, Patricio Guzman, Phil Tippett, Mark Isham, Les Blank, Alex Cox, J. Hoberman, Kidlat Tahimik, Agnes Godard, Mati Diop, and Nino Kirtadze. Sadly I missed all of these events. But I did see Rob Nilsson, Guy Maddin, Paolo Cherchi Usai, Peter Kubelka, Kevin Brownlow, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Olivier Assayas, Lech Majewski, Terence Davies, Pedro Costa, Janet Bergstrom, Ernie Gehr, Lawrence Jordan, David Meltzer, Wilder Bentley II, Kelly Reichardt, Kerry Laitala (before I'd met her), Craig Baldwin, George and Mike Kuchar, Sam Pollard, Dave Kehr, Phil Solomon, Agnes Varda, Tony Buba, Sally Cruikshank, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Lana Gogoberidze, and J.P. Sniadecki talk about their (or in some cases, others') films, and had my perceptions of cinema changed in some small or large way by every single one of them. Not to mention stalwart pianist Judith Rosenberg and other musical accompanists that silent films have almost always been attended with over the years.

Though there is no guest expected at tonight's Stalker showing, the remainder of the week will feature daily appearances from Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice, who will be on hand to show each film in his small but powerful body of work since his 1973 masterpiece Spirit of the Beehive, showing Saturday, and perhaps if we're lucky, some of the films in the Erice Selects series concluding the PFA's final Bancroft screenings: Zero For Conduct (a free 35mm screening!), City Lights, Bicycle Thieves, The Kid, and my favorite of all of these, Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story. Just be aware that there is no BART service between San Francisco and the East Bay on August 1st and 2nd, and plan your transportation accordingly.

HOW: 35mm print


Saturday, June 27, 2015

The City Luminous: Spectral Canopy Variation (2015)

WHO: Award-winning filmmaker Kerry Laitala made this, and I actually assisted her on some of her studio shoots. I've mentioned Latiala on this blog every so often since before I'd ever met her, but in the past several years we've become close, as I've explained before. I don't want that to stop me from featuring her work here every so often. Hope my readers don't mind.

WHAT: A four-projector video installation celebrating the centennial of the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), particularly its innovative lighting presentations. But don't take my word for it. Here's what Joe Ferguson had to say on the website SciArt in America:
Kerry Laitala’s The City Luminous: Spectral Canopy Variation is a collage of documentary material of the PPIE, intercut with expressionistic video segments. It features Laura Ackley, author of San Francisco’s Jewel City, as one of the Star Maidens of the PPIE’s Court of the Universe--one of the largest and most ornate courts during the fair. The installation also features dancer Jenny Stulberg performing a tribute to Loie Fuller--a pioneer of modern dance and theatrical-lighting techniques. 
Laitala’s piece cleverly reminds us that the works of innovative minds can be as impressive and inspiring now as they were a century ago. Her own work, though on a smaller scale, is no less affecting. Viewers pause in front of the glowing windows where her installation is projected before beginning their commutes home. Like those spectators a hundred years ago, they brave the chill of a San Francisco evening to glimpse at the possibilities of emerging technologies providing insight, hope, and beauty.
WHERE/WHEN: Loops from sundown to midnight tonight and tomorrow through the windows of the California Historical Society, on the corner of Mission Street and Annie Alley (between 3rd Street and New Montgomery). It's planned to reprise from December 21 to January 3 as well, but who wants to wait that long? UPDATE 6/29/15: The installation will remain up for one last night, tonight!

WHY: This weekend is an extremely busy one here on Frisco Bay. It's a particularly celebratory pride weekend (and the final couple days of the Frameline film festival). Huge numbers of librarians (and more than a few film archivists) from around the world are converging on San Francisco for their annual conference. There's a big gathering of poets, musicians, and even a few filmmakers from the Beat era. (ruth weiss, known to Beat cinema aficionados for her 1961 film The Brink, will be performing and David Amram will give a presentation about Pull My Daisy, which he scored, amidst the more usual documentaries about the scene.) The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum is hosting its annual Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival (with the expected appearance of a genuine silent-era child star, Diana Serra Carey, alongside a 35mm print of the 1924 film she starred in as Baby Peggy, The Family Secret, showing Sunday afternoon). And then there are the usual screenings at your favorite cinemas, like the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, launching an Andrei Tarkovsky retrospective tonight, or the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, now in the second week of its new summer calendar. Yerba Buena Center For the Arts is screening a nearly-six-hour Lav Diaz epic not once but twice. There's absolutely no way for anyone do experience a fraction of all this.

But The City Luminous: Spectral Canopy Variation is less than a fifteen-minute loop, and it's free and convenient to any passers-by in the neighborhood. A few of the aforementioned activities particularly are in close reach; if you survive all 338 minutes of a political drama from the Philippines at Yerba Buena, you're just a block from Mission and Annie Alley and what are another fifteen minutes of viewing (with four screens visible at once from some angles, it's like watching an hour of movie in a quarter the time!) A.L.A. conference attendees are also right in the neighborhood.

I'm very proud of Kerry for having executed this installation, and I'll miss being able to see it as I wander in SOMA in the evening, although I'm excited to see the next four-screen videos in the California Historical Society's nearly year-long Engineers of Illumination series (Scott Stark kicked off the series in the Spring with Shimmering Spectacles and Kevin Cain more meditative The Illuminated Palace is set to open Thursday, July 2nd, followed by pieces by Ben Wood and Elise Baldwin; all five will then reprise for shorter stints in the final months of the year).

It's not the only art exhibit featuring my girlfriend to come down this weekend. She's also the subject of Saul Levine's film As Is Is, the namesake of a gallery show ending today at the Altman Siegel Gallery on Geary near Market Street in which it screens (as digital video) along with moving image portraits by Kevin Jerome Everson, Anne McGuire, Jem Cohen, Tony Buba and others.

Laitala's The City Luminous: Spectral Canopy Variation is one of several moving image works she's premiered or will be premiering this year to mark the PPIE centennial, most of them named for one of the original night-time lighting effects presented by Walter D'Arcy Ryan at the fair a hundred years ago. She'll be presenting more of these works at an Oddball Films soiree on July 9th, and at a free show at Oakland's Shapeshifters Cinema on July 12th. These will be multi-projector performances with live soundtracks from local experimental music duo Voicehandler. Among the performances will be reprises of Spectacle of Light, their collaboration which won an audience award when presented at the 2015 Crossroads festival this past April. Three of Laitala's 3D chromadepth works will also screen at these shows, including Chromatic Frenzy, a piece that recently screened in Brooklyn as an apertif for Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language as part of a 21st Century 3D series. Kerry also asked me to perform a live keyboard accompaniment to a single-channel 16mm film called Side Show Spectacle at the July 9th Oddball screening. I hope you can make it to one or both of these upcoming shows!

HOW: The City Luminous: Spectral Canopy Variation screens as four video files projected through four separate, synched video projectors.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Leave Her To Heaven (1945)

screen capture from 20th Century Fox DVD
WHO: John M. Stahl directed this.

WHAT: This is what I wrote about this film the last time I saw it on the big screen seven years ago:
Movie buffs know how Leave Her to Heaven's sunny technicolor exteriors mask truly sinister impulses underneath. It's not for nothing that the film is frequently the sole full-color entry into the film noir canon. With such a reputation preceding, audiences don't have to guess whether Gene Tierney's longing stare at Cornel Wilde on their early New Mexico train ride portends eventual doom. Tierney's affection-starved green-eyed-monster is no simple rich bitch or cut-and-dried psychotic. Even in her most despicable moments, the audience is asked to empathize with the motivations, if not the twisted logic, behind her devastating acts. As a result, Leave Her to Heaven becomes as cutting an indictment of repression as anything by Ingmar Bergman.
WHERE?WHEN: Screens 7:30 PM tonight only at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.

WHY: I suspect I compared Leave Her To Heaven to Bergman in the above-quoted paragraph because I saw it within a year after the latter died, a period in which I viewed or re-viewed quite a few of the Swedish master's works in cinemas or on home video. During that period I didn't happen to have seen very many films by two other perhaps more sensible comparisons: Douglas Sirk or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose work more directly relates to Stahl's. Sirk, making melodramas at Universal Pictures in the 1950s two decades after Stahl's period there, ended up re-making three Stahl films, each showing in the PFA's Stahl retrospective: Imitation of Life, Magnificent Obsession and When Tomorrow Comes (which was re-titled as Interlude when Sirk got a hold of it). As I've mentioned here before, Imitation of Life and Interlude were among the Sirk films that are said to have initially influenced Fassbinder in turn in the 1970s, but I wouldn't be shocked to learn one or both of these auteurs hadn't seen Leave Her to Heaven as some point as well- in fact its colors make it feel more proto-Sirkian or Ali-esque than the mid-1930s Stahls are (I've yet to see When Tomorrow Comes and am greatly anticipating it June 26th.) My other favorite Stahl film thus far is the 1933 Only Yesterday, which was later remade by yet another legend, Max Ophuls, as Letter From an Unknown Woman. It's hard to decide which is a better version, as I noted when picking it as one of my top repertory experiences of 2014.

Though no Sirk, Fassbinder or Ophüls films screen at the PFA for the rest of 2015 (I sadly missed Ophüls' From Mayerling to Sarajevo last week and hope the print circles back somehow), Fassbinder is one focus of another big cinema event starting tonight, the 39th annnual Frameline festival. A new documentary made by one of his contemporaries screens at the Castro next Tuesday, just a few weeks late for what would've been the openly bisexual German radical's 70th birthday. The following afternoon the same space will show Fassbinder's final feature Querelle, unfortunately not on 35mm as Frisco Bay audiences were lucky to see it in 2013. Other films about classic queer and queer-allied filmmakers screening at Frameline this year include Peter Greenaway's Eisenstein in Guanajuato, Stephen Winter's Jason and Shirley, about the making of Shirley Clarke's Portrait of Jason, Jeffrey Schwartz's Tab Hunter Confidential, and Feelings Are Facts: the Life of Yvonne Rainer, about the living-legend dancer and filmmaker who came of age in San Francisco. Though I have not seen any of these (besides Querelle) I can heartily recommend another Frameline film to cinephiles: Jenni Olson's The Royal Road, which I saw at the San Francisco International Film Festival and which I think I loved as much as I did The Joy of Life, one of the first films I reviewed on this blog when I started it ten years ago.

HOW: The entire Stahl series is expected to screen in 35mm prints from Universal, Criterion or the UCLA Film and Television Archive; hopefully this will indeed come to pass as I feel a bit remorseful that last week I steered readers to a Kirsanoff program that was advertised as 35mm but ended up screening digitally after all.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Ménilmontant (1926)

WHO: This was written and directed by Dimitri Kirsanoff, and starred his wife Nadia Sibirskaïa who, according to Monica Nolan's just-published SF Silent Film Festival essay, may lay some claim to being a co-director on at least some of their collaborations.

WHAT: Though I just saw this a couple weeks ago, I'm in a rush, so let me quote my friend Jeremy Matthews, who just ranked this film #14 on a list of the 100 Best Silent Films which made me realize just how similar our tastes are (although he loves Buster Keaton far more than I even do):
Watching Ménilmontant is a deeply felt experience. Impressionist filmmaker Dimitri Kirsanoff takes the dreamlike qualities of silent cinema to their natural conclusion, letting the story float by alongside haunting imagery without any intertitles directing hot to interpret the story. Kirsanoff made only one other film before this bold work, which starts abruptly and brutally with a man murdering a couple, then follows a love triangle involving the dead parents’ two daughters once they’ve grown. For all his cinematic innovations, Kirsanoff is not too hoity-toity to to tug the heartstrings, and a scene with a kind old man on a park bench is one of the most touching you’ll ever see.
WHERE/WHEN: 7PM tonight only at the Pacific Film Archive.

WHY: The beginning of the month saw the tail end of the 20th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which I'm still in the midst of writing my final wrap-up report on. In the meantime, you can check out the preview pieces linked at Keyframe Daily and wrap-ups by Donna Hill, Meredith Brody, Mary Mallory, David Mermelstein, and, if you have the inclination toward the spoken rather than written word, the Cinephiliacs podcast, in which attendees Peter Labuza and Victor Morton discuss several of the screened films. Peter kindly name-checks me in this episode, even though I've been so lax in keeping this blog up-to-date that I haven't even mentioned yet the fact that I was honored to be a guest on a prior episode of his podcast in which we talked about my path into cinephilia, the San Francisco screening scene, and other topics but especially Christopher Maclaine's 1953 masterpiece The End.

I'd wanted to write a post of footnotes about the many points I in retrospect wish I could've expanded upon during our fast-paced discussion, but I have a feeling that's not going to happen which is just as well as I'm very happy with the way the piece came out thanks to Peter's editing, and humbled to be added to his illustrious guest list. I will say one thing about the podcast: that I hope no listener has the impression that I've programmed more than one film for YBCA, that being The Company during last summer's Invasion of the Cinemaniacs series, as Joel Shepherd is handily taking care of that himself (this month's New Filipino Cinema and the upcoming David Cronenberg series prove he knows exactly what he's doing). I've programmed only a little more than that for the San Francisco Public Library, but tomorrow afternoon's free 16mm "ATA @ SFPL" showcase at the Noe Valley Public Library is one I and my co-programmers are particularly proud of.

Steering back to Ménilmontant: it a highlight of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for many people, but I'm glad it's showing again tonight as the second program in the PFA's final 2015 calendar. Final because the PFA will soon be moving its screening space from the "temporary" location it's inhabited at the corner of Bowditch and Bancroft for more the fifteen years. It's final day in the purple-chaired classroom-style room is August 2nd, and the institution is expected to reopen in 2016 at a location on the West side of the UC Berkeley campus, closer to BART and Shattuck Avenue. Glad because it will be great to see it paired with another Kirsanoff/ collaboration Autumn Mists, put into greater context as part of an incredible centennial tribute to La Cinémathèque Française's legendary founder Henri Langlois that also includes rarely-shown films by Ernst Lubitsch, Jean Grémillon, Abel Gance, Jean Renoir, Erich von Stroheim and many more, and woven into the fabric of eight weeks of PFA programming that shows its commitment to both expanding the canon and offering chances to reaffirm it in the best possible projection setting as well as ever. This weekend's launching series include tributes to comics W.C. Fields and Laurel and Hardy and a forgotten silent serial, and later on the venue will host a night of Indian video art and 35mm-heavy Andrei Tarkovsky, John Stahl and Victor Erice retrospectives, the latter paired with a hefty selection of his own favorites drawn from cinema history.

I'm also glad because...

HOW: When Ménilmontant screened at the Castro nearly two weeks ago it showed digitally with a score by the ever-reliable Stephen Horne. This presentation was strong enough to fool at least one filmmaker in the house into thinking it was 35mm, but tonight's screening is a chance to see the real thing: the Cinémathèque Française is supplying a print, which will be able to screen at 18 frames per second rather than the digital standard (unless you're a hobbit) of 24 fps. The musical accompaniment will be by another of my very favorite pianists, Judith Rosenberg, bucking the tradition of silent-era films shown in silence that Langlois is famous for. This is a tradition that barely exists in the Bay Area cinemas, and as a silent-film-music appreciator (and occasional practicioner) it's not one I'm particularly eager to see get a foothold. But I am curious why, if the PFA is not planning to employ Rosenberg to play music for Queen Kelly on July 24th anyway, they don't give us a little sample of this Cinémathèque Française sonic tradition, just to hear what it's like for once.