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.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Monte-Cristo (1929)

A scene from Henri Fescourt's MONTE-CRISTO, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 - May 7 2015. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
WHO: Besides Alexandre Dumas, père, who wrote (or actually co-wrote with Auguste Maquet) the famous novel from which this screen adaptation was based, the best-remembered creative involved in this film's creation is probably Lil Dagover, who performed in this French film a decade after her roles in Fritz Lang's the Spiders and Harakiri,and in Robert Weine's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

WHAT: I haven't seen this yet, so let me quote from a recent article by David Cairns:
If the style is modernist (also: extreme close-ups; zip-pans; swooning drifts in and out of focus; a shot of a sparkling sea when the hero, long imprisoned in the dark, is blinded by daylight), the settings are gloriously traditional, with lavish sets, augmented by special effects, elegant costumes and varied exotic locations.
WHERE/WHEN: 1:00 today only at the Kabuki, courtesy of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF).

WHY: Monte-Cristo is one of the last serials produced during the silent era in the country that made such an early and critical mark on the form with multi-episode films like Les Vampyres and Judex. Seriality of course now dominates popular cinema, at least at this time of year, even if we don't always admit it to ourselves. For those who enjoyed attending UC Berkeley's conference and screenings on seriality in silent cinema and beyond this past February, attending today's screening is a no-brainer.

Monte-Cristo was not long ago restored from disparate sources in various archive, and is presented as the carte-blanche selection of Mel Novikoff Award winner Lenny Borger, who will be interviewed by Scott Foundas on stage prior to the showing. Recent recipients of this award have included critics (David Thomson, J. Hoberman, the late Manny Farber & Roger Ebert), archivists (Serge Bromberg, Kevin Brownlow, Paolo Cherchi Usai) and programmers/exhibitors (Anita Monga, Bruce Goldstein, Pierre Rissient, the late Peter Von Bagh.) This is, I believe, the first time the award is going to someone who is best known for his work as a subtitler. It's high time, as this key role in the transmission of international cinema is often taken for granted, especially in a near-insatiable market for foreign films like that of the Bay Area, where a recent trend of exhibiting films with utterly (and often obviously, even to a linguistic ignoramus) amateur subtitle translations has gotten a foothold in at least one prominent independent theatre.

Is it ironic that a subtitler has chosen a silent film as his presentation selection? It makes me wonder if he is able to enjoy watching a film with subtitled dialogue without giving the translations his own professional critique.

Of course Frisco Bay loves its silent films and usually embraces another opportunity to see an obscure one on the big screen. We're coming up on a season of many such opportunities, as the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is just around the corner at the end of this month (aforementioned Bromberg, Brownlow, Goldstein and of course festival director Monga all expected to attend) and the Niles Silent Film Museum has just issued its newest calendar pdf, including the line-up for its Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival in late June.

SFIFF also provides two more silent film screenings, both with live musical accompaniment, this week. Cibo Matto performs to a 35mm print of Marcel Duchamp's Anemic Cinema (as well as some more recent works in which they will replace an original soundtrack with their own) Tuesday, and Kronos Quartet provides the music for Bill Morrison's recent compilation of World War I footage on Wednesday.

HOW: Screens from a digital master (the only way this particular restoration exists), with Borger's preferred musical accompaniment recorded onto the digital "print".

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Today's the final screening of the excellent program of experimental shorts that I discussed Wednesday, and of the animated shorts program I touched on last weekend. It's also the first screening of local filmmaker Jennifer Phang's sci-fi feature Advantageous (full disclosure: I'm friends with Phang and her editor Sean Gillane, and contributed to this feature's crowd-funding campaign. I bought my ticket to tonight's show and can't wait!)

NON-SFIFF OPTION: Today SF Cinematheque hosts a video/performance variation of the incredible installation Kit Young had up at Artists' Television Access earlier this year, as well as performance from Any Puls and others.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

layover (2014)

A scene from Vanessa Renwick's LAYOVER, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 - May 7 2015. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
WHO: Vanessa Renwick made this.

WHAT: I've only seen a handful of items from Renwick's extensive filmography; essentially only the ones collected on this DVD (I plan to place an order for this one soon). What I've seen reveals her accomplishment in many filmmaking tools and techniques, but the film that has stuck with me most over the years is Britton, South Dakota, a found footage piece that apparently involved minimal intervention on her part. Yet those few strokes: selecting a particular nine minutes of images from two and a half hours of footage shot by one man in one town back in 1938, and finding music to go with it, turned the footage into a particularly haunting form of contemporary art.

Her latest short piece, a 6-minute work called layover, is a stunningly beautiful cine-poem documenting the swirling flight patterns of a group of Vaux's swifts (a West Coast relative to the more famous chimney swift of the Eastern U.S.) as they make their annual stop at a Portland school building (which looks like a repurposed factory smokestack) on the way down their migratory path toward Central America. In this case Renwick's interventions are not nearly as apparently minimal as those in Britton, South Dakota, although I do not know whether or not the footage, shot in HD by perennial collaborator Eric Edwards (also director of photography for many Gus van Sant films), was captured with Renwick present. I have no reason to think she wasn't on hand, directing Edwards and his assistants to shoot the material she knew she'd need for the edit, but it's possible that, like Ivan Besse's footage in Britton, South Dakota, these images were something Edwards had caught without Renwick's involvement, and that she instead instigated their formation into a work unto itself.

Either way, there is an element of the swifts' abstract patterning that foreground's the camera's role in preserving fleeting, unstaged moments. Their spirals and funnels sometimes resemble the animated motions found in a Jordan Belson film, but were not choreographed by any animator besides the instinct and social behavior of Mother Nature. This is a film that invites particular reflections on the role of humans and their inventions in relation to the fabric of organic matter we're surrounded by and indeed part of, whether we're present to that fact or not. Max Goldberg recently put it more succinctly: "each time the awed camera bucks or racks focus to keep up with the flock, it’s a reminder of our human weakness for wanting to hold what will not be held."

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 9:30 PM tonight at the Kabuki Theatre, and 6:30 PM this Sunday, May 3rd at the Pacific Film Archive, both courtesy of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF).

WHY: Max Goldberg's article, linked above, is from his wrap-up on SF Cinematheque's Crossroads Festival, which occurred earlier this month. He doesn't mention that layover in fact kicked off the very first program of the entire weekend-long festival, its uplift making an ideal opening to a weekend full of flights into unknown spaces. If the order of films in the Nothing But a Dream: Experimental Shorts program at SFIFF this year is the order of showing, then layover will again provide the first images of the program, and for those who may have missed out on Crossroads, an ideal opening of a month of SF Cinematheque co-presentations and presentations.

The "Nothing But a Dream" program is the annual SFIFF show programmed not by festival staff but by Kathy Gertiz of the Pacific Film Archive and Vanessa O'Neill of Cinematheque; it includes works by artists frequently showcased by those institutions, like Janie Geiser and T. Marie, as well as relative newcomers like local Zachary Epcar, whose terrific short Under the Heat Lamp an Opening is the first of his pieces screened at any of these three partnering organizations (its slightly-earlier showing at Crossroads shouldn't take away from the prestige of this premiere; this time Epcar is expected to be on hand for audience questions after the showings).

SF Cinematheque has also joined as a co-presenter for Jenni Olson's latest feature The Royal Road, but also presents a couple of programs during SFIFF that have nothing to do with the festival: an Andrew Puls performance occurs (quite unfortunately) during the second screening of layover and its "Nothing But a Dream" kin this Sunday. And small-gauge film legend Saul Levine makes a rare visit from New England to Oakland next Tuesday, May 5th. Later in the month, after SFIFF is over, two more artists present work at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts: Kevin Jerome Everson on the 19th & 20th and Tommy Becker on the 29th. Further into the future, SF Cinematheque promises screenings of work by Zach Iannazzi & Margaret Rorison in August, Sandra Gibson & Luis Recoder in October, and Nathaniel Dorsky in November.

HOW: According to the PFA listing, all but three of the pieces in the "Nothing But A Dream" program screen digitally. Those three are 16mm prints: Ryan Marino's Old Growth, Jennifer Reeves's Color Neutral and Mike Gibisser's Blue Loop, July. Of course layover will be shown digitally, its native format.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Today's the final festival screenings of Andrei Konchalovsky's The Postman's White Nights, Alice Rohrwacher's The Wonders, Sergei Loznitza's Maidan, and the Chinese noir I wrote about on Monday, Diao Yinan's Black Coal, Thin Ice.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: The Castro Theatre (which incidentally has just revealed its May calendar) is screening a 35mm print of Alfred Hitchcock's Rope with a digital version of the Wachowskis' Bound.