Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Big Screen Jones


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Last Sunday I learned something that surprised me. I was not only surprised, but also surprised at just how much I was surprised. I learned it while at work, and I almost immediately had to take a few minutes just to collect my thoughts. And it's taken me several days to be able to collect them into bloggable form. Anyway, enough with the prelude: what I heard is that the Castro Theatre is planning to show Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull from May 22nd until June 18th, the day before the opening of the Frameline festival.

With weeds growing on the site of the former Coronet, the traditional favorite place for the opening of a Lucasfilm production, the Castro has become Frisco's largest remaining single-screen theatre in operation. There's a lot of logic to this booking. A quick survey of friends who I know are eagerly anticipating this fourth installment of the popular series revealed that there's no place in town they'd rather watch the film on opening weekend than at the Castro, though none guessed that they'd actually get the chance to do so.

As exciting as this will undoubtedly be to a great many people, I must say that my initial reaction was not one of excitement and anticipation, but of anxiety. I pictured the Death Of Repertory in my city, which has for so long been a supportive home to revivals, retrospectives and just about all of that which makes up repertory film programming. It felt as if the other shoe of the 2004 Anita Monga firing furor, from which cinephile morale regarding the Castro was seemingly slowly, but surely, recovering, had finally been dropped. And somehow, despite various signs of warning, from meager attendance levels at bookings like the week-long run of Last Year At Marienbad to a widely read newspaper article, it was completely unexpected to me. The Chronicle article, written with that air of self-fulfilling prophecy that so many news articles on cultural trends often contain, and eloquently rebutted here, seemed to foretell changes at the Castro, but I would never have guessed them to include the booking of first-run would-be blockbusters. It appears I was lacking the imagination to envision the theatre as anything other than a "safe zone" from the latest and most-hyped Hollywood conglomerate-driven product.

After wallowing in pessimism -- an unverified rumor that left me in a funk for an entire evening -- I awoke to a more serene and open view on the matter. I realized that it's just a four-week booking, and an experiment of sorts. One that I'm about as curious as anyone to see the results of. The potential of the theatre to reach out to audiences that have never been inside its walls (how often it is that I'll mention the theatre to a fellow Frisco resident who has of course heard of it, but never attended) is exciting in that it could potentially even strengthen repertory in the long run.

The Castro is not only unique among Frisco theatres (in the ways I touched on here, and more) but also an aberration among the remaining theatres of its kind across the country- no other house its size is showing repertory and festival films for as many days out of the year as the Castro currently is. With a 1400-seat capacity, it's a bigger gorilla on the block than other cities with healthy repertory scenes, such as New York and Los Angeles, have to contend. Is it possible that, with the fragmenting of niche cinema audiences, the existence of such a large repertory venue in town may actually be stunting the ability of smaller venues to develop interesting programming and interested audiences?

I'm not sure I'm going to check out Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull at the Castro or anywhere else -- the upcoming popcorn movie I'm more intrigued by is actually Iron Man, which is scheduled to be one of the first films to play at Frank Lee's re-modeled, re-christened Marina Theatre when it re-opens its doors in May -- but I will spread the word to people excited about the Spielberg-directed film that the Castro is the place to see it.

In the meantime, I hope to take great advantage of the Castro repertory bookings between now and late May. There's a Joseph Losey double-bill on Wednesday, and on Saturday three reunion gigs for the Club Foot Orchestra, once a perennial attraction for its performances of scores to the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and other silents in that space. A 33-film tribute to United Artists for the studio's 90th anniversary opened last Thursday and runs intermittently through May 4th. As if to commemorate the life and death of Charlton Heston, May 6th and 7th will provide a chance to see the original Planet of the Apes in a brand-new 35mm print struck for the film's 40th anniversary. And May 9-15 will bring a week-long opportunity to see one of Jean-Luc Godard's greatest films, Contempt.

Even if the Castro management decides to go first-run on the strength of a successful Indiana Jones engagement, there are enough summer festival bookings that such a change doesn't seem likely to be immediate. In addition to Frameline (June 19-29), the Silent Film Festival (July 11-13, partial line-up found here) and the Jewish Film Festival (July 24-31) are going to be at the venue. And at Friday's MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS screening of John Carpenter's lo-fi sci-fi spoof Dark Star, Jesse Hawthorne Ficks announced a July 19 marathon of films in which animals attack humans, including Jaws, Phase IV, Alligator, and more.

Perhaps the film revival I'm most excited to see on the Castro screen in the next few months is John Stahl's Leave Her To Heaven, a so-called "technicolor noir" which has apparently been newly restored to its 1945 glory and is knocking film festival audiences dead. It's a film festival presentation here in Frisco, too, part of the six days that the 51st SF International Film Festival will be spending at the Castro during its two-week run here and in Berkeley April 24-May 8. Palo Alto has been cut out of the program, which I'm pleased about for purely selfish reasons- the result is more screenings of the films I want to see at the festival's Kabuki Theatre host venue, far more convenient to me than the Aquarius. South Bay residents will have to subsist on word that there will be a one-night SFIFF event in an unspecified South Bay location. If that doesn't do it for you, try the 2-down, 34-to-go Bette Davis centennial tribute running at the Stanford through June 6th. And of course there's always CalTrain.

Other SFIFF Castro screenings include, but are not limited to: Roy Andersson's You, the Living on April 25th shortly before Black Francis takes the stage to perform alongside the 1920 slice of German expressionism the Golem, the North American premiere of Jet Li in the Warlords on April 26 (right after Leave Her to Heaven) and the closing night film, Alex Gibney's latest documentary Gonzo: the Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, a screening which serves as a benefit for the Natural Resources Defense Council. That ought to put festival-goers in a partying mood on the last night of the SFIFF. The full SFIFF program was announced at a press conference last Tuesday, and I'll be pointing to more films I've seen or am excited about in the upcoming days. In the meantime, sf360 has an initial preview piece up.