Saturday, May 31, 2008

Linking Feller: May

The San Francisco Film Society is best known for running the San Francisco International Film Festival, but has been putting on an increasing amount of other film events throughout the year. Now, starting June 13, the Film Society will begin providing 365-day-a-year content on a special SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki theatre. The first set of films have been announced as follows:

June 13-19 Times and Winds from Turkey. I missed it at the 2007 SFIFF, despite the praise of Michael Guillén among others. I'm glad for another chance.

June 20-26 Woman on the Beach from Korea. One of my favorite films of 2007 despite only being able to see it once, at the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival.

June 27-July 3, the Romance of Astreé and Céladon, from France. Directed by Eric Rohmer of Claire's Knee and the Green Ray, who says it is going to be his last feature film. Hard to compare with Rohmer's masterpieces (such as the aforementioned two), it nonetheless was one of my favorites at this last SFIFF. Fernando F. Croce, in his festival report, calls the film "radically quaint" before praising its "ravishing examination of the folly of love" - that sounds about right to me!

July bookings on the SFFS screen will also include Hank and Mike, Blind Mountain and Wonderful Town.

In other Frisco film links: the Yerba Beuna Center for the Arts has a tremendous June line-up, including films by auteurs Jia Zhang-ke, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Michael Haneke which have never graced Frisco cinema screens before. Between that, the PFA, the various film festivals listed to the right, and the new Stanford Theatre calendar (celebrating Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, and classic Hollywood in general), I'm not sure how I'm going to be able to fit in the viewing of the entire Berlin Alexanderplatz at SFMOMA. Who said June was going to be a calm month for Frisco filmgoing?

I was extremely honored to be among those singled out by one of the classiest bloggers around, Kimberly Lindbergs of Cinebeats, who mentioned Hell on Frisco Bay in a Behind the Blog spotlight at Film in Focus. Cinebeats is one of those blogs so well-written, well-focused, and well-designed that I can get intimidated. Her kind words mean a lot to me as I approach the end of my third year of writing this blog.

Two other bloggers mentioned by Kimberly have grabbed my attention recently as well.

Dennis Cozzalio has put up his latest survey: "Professor Brian O'Blivion's All New Flesh For Memorial Day Film (and TV) Quiz. Answering Dennis's sometimes deep, sometimes frivolous, always thoughtful questions has been a delightful time-suck for me again and again and again and again. This one's no different. I started filling out my answer sheet, but then my browser froze and my answers were lost ("my dog ate it" for the "New Flesh" generation) but I will finish this quiz as soon as I can. Thank Videodrome it's a take-home!

And Girish Shambu has announced that he's going to be in Frisco for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival running July 11-13, at the encouragement of Michael Guillén and along with Darren Hughes. Girish was one of the first commenters here at Hell on Frisco Bay (Dennis was too) and since I've never met him in person I'm thrilled that I'll finally have the chance!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sean McCourt: Geoffrey Smith on The English Surgeon

The 51st San Francisco International Film Festival wrapped on May 8th, but I'm still finding people interested in talking about favorite films from the two-week festival. I'll be writing more on some of them soon, but in the meantime here's a piece on a documentary I missed called the English Surgeon. Luckily, able correspondent Sean McCourt caught the film and spoke with its director, Geoffrey Smith:

* * * * *

In the medical world, there are serious risks associated with any kind of surgery. If a mistake is made during a procedure on a leg or arm, there might be some loss of movement or ease of mobility, but the patient can still generally go about their lives, perhaps with a slight physical handicap. If something goes wrong during a brain surgery, however, a person can lose their memory, their control of motor skills, even the ability to think.

This is the challenge that faces British neurosurgeon Dr. Henry Marsh every time he operates on somebody, and is one of the personal revelations about his work that he shares in the film The English Surgeon, which screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival on May 1 and 2.

Marsh has been traveling to the former Soviet republic of Ukraine since 1992, volunteering on his own time to help in a region of the world that has a medical system that lags many decades behind those in the industrialized West -- and where many cases of brain tumors and other illnesses go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for so long that what would have been easily taken care of with a routine operation or procedure at Marsh's hospital in London have now progressed to the point that there is little doctors can do to save the patient's life.

During the screenings at the Sundance Kabuki theatre, audience members alternated between quietly sniffling and dabbing their eyes during the more heart-wrenching scenes, and then bursting out in collective laughter (and relief) during some of the film's more light-hearted moments.

That emotional dynamic and natural flow to the piece was of significant importance to director Geoffrey Smith, who discussed his film along with Dr. Marsh the day after the first screening of the festival.

"The only model one has [when making a film like this] is what you see out there. When I first went out with Henry, that's really what happened, it was funny, farcical, surreal, tragic, moving, and then it would just start over again. Life in many ways is like that in the Ukraine, so it gave me a model to structure the film, and also to pace it emotionally, because just when you think you're safe, you get another wake up call, and then you have another piece of humor. It feels good though, it feels real, because that's how reality is there."

"I think the thing about these situations is that people in extremes, people in difficulty, of course it's dramatic, but it also allows us in to see how people cope, and how other people treat them, what those dynamics are. Ultimately it's a great metaphor, a barometer, for how good or otherwise, society is. It challenges all of us to do something. So, if you can encapsulate those forces into a human story, and medicine is very useful for that, I mean, it also has a beginning, a middle and an end, it's a useful technique."

"I love sort of the difficult stuff; the ethics and the dilemmas, because, life, it seems to me, is more about that, it's not simplistic and clear cut. You and I can't save lives with our hands, we can do all sorts of small things, and it's the choice we make or don't make, and it's the decisions about those things, that's where it resonates with each audience member, as it gets closer towards the end, it starts to grab you by the throat and ask the same questions."

Both Smith and Marsh have long been interested in Ukraine, each having their own reasons for initially making their visits.

"The first thing about the Ukraine for me was meeting people on the Trans-Siberian Express back in '83. I corresponded with people, and I had a chance to go after the wall went down properly—I fell in love with the city and those people, I really, really did," says Smith.

"There's something that you can't put into words -- back in the early '90s, the place was absolutely dire, the whole bottom had fallen out of it, and we have seen, literally, this country transform in some ways, and not all of them good, but it's intoxicating to be there because of the rate of change, and amount of possibility is like you could never have in the West."

Marsh had been interested in Russia and Russian cultures since he read Tolstoy at the age of 16; he later attended Oxford University, studying politics and economics, with a specialization on the Soviet Union.

As he puts it, he then "strayed into brain surgery, in that way one does, and I never thought I'd be able to combine Kremlinology and brain surgery. By chance in 1992, a local businessman in my part of London was looking for some neurosurgeons to take out to Ukraine, which had just become independent, to give sort of good will lectures—to maybe help him sell British medical equipment—it was rather naïve in retrospect, because the Ukraine was totally bankrupt at the time."

Marsh says that his initial introduction and first visit to a place he had learned so much about from afar was a jarring one, but he found himself thoroughly intrigued.
"It was a totally extraordinary, intoxicating, terrifying time—if you had a hundred dollars in your pocket you were a millionaire, it was like sort of being in a dream world. It was horrifying actually, it was very deeply depressing. I remember getting back to my hotel room with one of my colleagues and opening a bottle of duty-free whiskey and drinking most of it in a state of sheer shock at seeing such rough medical conditions."

After returning to London, Marsh heard nothing for a year, but then got a Christmas card from one of the doctors he had met on the visit, Igor Kurilets, who had gotten approval to ask about coming to London to work with the esteemed surgeon, and learn from him. Marsh accepted, and during the three months that the two worked together, they developed a strong bond, and once Igor went back to the Ukraine, Marsh began taking trips to visit him, bringing him used medical equipment from London so that the poorly provided for clinic in Kiev where he practiced could have a better chance of helping people.

Smith, who has made a variety of documentaries over the past 20 years, first heard about Marsh while making a BBC program about surgeons, and was immediately drawn to him as a subject.

"What I like about him is that he's able to articulate these things, he's able to let you in, to be vulnerable, and fragile maybe, even to be flawed, and ultimately wrong, perhaps, or at least admit the possibility of that. But within all of that there's this wonderful 'Nobility of Failure,' as he calls it, which immediately makes us feel like we can relate to him. He's not putting on a show, he's not perfect, he's not contrived, he's not pretentious nor arrogant; he's one of us at that level. Mixed in with great humor and compassion, he's a hero, and that world loves a good hero."

During his visits to Ukraine and Kurilets' office, Marsh learns of the case of a young man named Marian from a small village who has a brain tumor that has been deemed inoperable or too tricky for native Ukrainian surgeons to deal with. The film features the parallel journeys of the patient and the doctor to the city, with the final outcome being that Marsh decides that the procedure is possible to do in the Ukraine—but in a manner different than what would be done in the West. Due to a lack of needed equipment and properly trained staff, Marian will have to be awake during the operation—a local anesthetic will be used as opposed to a general one, so he will have to hear and somewhat feel what is going on.

Intermingled with this part of the narrative are scenes of Marsh helping Igor with consultations of other prospective patients, sifting through lines of people that stretch down entire hospital hallways, some people being told what they should do for their treatment, others being told that nothing can be done.

Also mixed into the film is the story of a young patient named Tanya that Marsh tried to help several years ago, bringing her to London for a surgery that ended up not going as planned, resulting in the girl's eventual death a couple of years later. During his visit to the Ukraine when accompanied by the filmmakers, Marsh decides to visit Tanya's mother, Katya, enveloping viewers into an even more personal emotional journey.

"It was the first time I had seen her since she and Tanya had left London. [She lives in] a very remote part of the Ukraine, and I didn't really have any reason to visit her before. I'm very busy when I'm there, and Igor would see no point to it, 'what's the point, it's sentimental.' But he could see the film was a good idea, it wasn't going to do him harm, it was easier to say, 'let's go and see Katya.' Igor is a nice guy, but he's not sentimental," says Marsh.

"Going to see Katya was nice for me, not that I felt guilty or bad about what I did—I tried, and I failed. When I was walking in the cemetery, I felt all the dead faces on the tombstones saying, 'well, you tried, that's something, at least you tried.' But it was nice to see Katya, because although we don't have a common language, we were very close; she had been to my home [in London] many times, and it was good to see her again."

The English Surgeon features a soundtrack composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, which adds to film's tone, but never attempts to take it over; it us is used very sparingly, which Smith says worked perfectly in the end result.

"I think the thing that's important to realize about Nick is that he is enormously cine-literate; he watches more films than anyone I know. He's a softie, but in a way that he responded exactly to Henry, because what he saw in the paper proposal and in the rushes, is someone who is utterly unsentimental, and yet through the almost melancholic idea of the failure of things, in the failure, there's all the love and goodness and trying and the redemption that Nick writes about."

During many of the most dramatic scenes, such as when Marsh and Kurilets have to tell a grandmother that there is nothing they can do for her grandchild, there is no music—the enormity of the real-life situation is enough on its own, which Smith says that they were all very conscious of during the making of the film.

"Nick is very strong on the complete idiocy of using music to manipulate the story, and so am I. It's the power of what's going on, and there's no music under any of those emotional scenes, because that would be really silly."

The English Surgeon presents a very moving and powerful story about what a couple of strong-willed individuals are attempting to do to help their fellow man—but both the director and subject want to steer clear of any perceptions that this could be a 'feel good' or 'self-congratulating pat on the back' type of project—and they know that the film wouldn't be as effective without the contributions of Kurilets.

"My very close friendship with Igor is an incredibly critical element. I really like seeing him, he really likes seeing me. Our idea of socializing is work, you know, my idea of a holiday is to go and operate in the Ukraine—I'm not interested in beaches and things like that," says Marsh. "[But we] have to be very wary of ethnic voyeurism, you know, these wealthy, comfortable, well-fed Westerners nip into a bit of hardship overseas, and then say, 'Gosh, wow, this is reality,' and then nip back home again. I hate that. But there is a certain nobility—with suffering and poverty people have to surmount problems we don't. They are in some ways finer people than we are, because they've been tried. If they survive, if they transcend their terrible difficulties, as Katya in a sense has, maintaining her dignity, I'm filled with awe, and God knows how would cope if I had to cope with what they cope with."

"There's a great quote by the Hungarian poet Faludy, who said that Soviet communism is like acid poured over metal—people made of base metals were destroyed, but people made of gold shone all the brighter. When I see people like Igor or Katya, that's what I feel. But how I would be if I had the acid poured over me? None of us knows until it happens; all one can do is see that some people have come through that, and it's very humbling."

--Sean McCourt

Monday, May 26, 2008

Le Video Marches On

Chris Cagle has started a site called the Film of the Month. The idea is to get bloggers and cinephiles from around the globe together to talk about one movie available on Region 1 DVD each month. Girish Shambu selected the first object of discussion: Kazuo Hara's 1987 documentary the Emperor's Naked Army Marches On. I just posted a brief reflection this evening, and the discussion in this film remains open for the rest of the month.

Since I missed it when it played the Pacific Film Archive over a year ago, I borrowed the Emperor's Naked Army Marches On from what is still the very best Frisco video rental store: Le Video. Places like Leather Tongue and Naked Eye have sadly folded up their tents but Le Video keeps plugging at 9th Avenue between Irving and Lincoln. In addition to their ever-growing selection of DVDs, they still have a huge VHS collection that puts Netflix to shame in certain categories (silent films, avant-garde films, and French films, for example). And they've just installed a new catalog search terminal that customers can use to find their videos without having to bother the staff during those busy rental times.

With so many convenient but somehow impersonal ways to get an obscure home video fix, it's comforting to know that there are still places to browse walls after walls of niche titles. Also recommended: Lost Weekend Video on Valencia Street (which actually carries a few titles that have somehow escaped Le Video's grasp, and sells T-Shirts on top of it.)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

It's Not Too Late To Whip It

It's true I've had reservations about the fact that Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull is playing at the Castro Theatre until the day before Frameline. But now that the moment is upon me, I'm as caught up in the excitement as just about anybody else. (How does Hollywood do that?)

I thought it might be worth a mention that the Castro is going to be holding a just-after-midnight screening of the film tonight, and that as of this posting, tickets are still available at the box office. I've already encountered someone who made his plans to see the film at another venue holding midnight screenings, even though he'd prefer the Castro, simply because he assumed that as a single-screen theatre it will be impossible to get in. People forget how huge the place is: 1400 seats or some-such.

See you there! I'm excited to see Cate Blanchett in a Colleen Moore hairdo, but am otherwise keeping my expectations of the film itself relatively low. But I've decided, I don't want to miss it as an EVENT.

Of course, midnight movies are also presented every weekend at the Clay Theatre. This weekend it's three nights of Jim Henson's the Dark Crystal, and June 6 & 7 it's Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Frameline schedule announced

Frameline, the world's largest film festival devoted to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender filmmakers and images, announced its full program earlier today. The festival runs June 19-29 here in Frisco at the Castro, Roxie, Victoria, and in Berkeley, the Elmwood. I missed the press conference myself and haven't had time to peruse thoroughly, but two items stick out at first glance-over.

First, Derek, Isaac Julien's documentary on the life and art of Derek Jarman, will be playing at the Castro on Sunday, June 29th at 4:30 PM, just before the closing night film, Breakfast With Scot. Derek was my favorite documentary seen at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and I wrote about it here. I know I responded to it so well in part because I knew so little about the boundary-shredding British filmmaker beforehand. I'm curious to know how Frisco's true-blue Jarmaniacs will respond. Meanwhile, Jarman's Sebastiane and In The Shadow of the Sun (with soundtrack by Throbbing Gristle) are playing a screening totally unconnected to Frameline at A.T.A. Wednesday, May 21.

Second, this year's Frameline Award is going to its own outgoing festival director Michael Lumpkin, and a seven-film selection of past Frameline hits with real staying power will be included in the festival. I've seen four of them (Gus Van Sant's Mala Noche, the Wachowskis' Bound, Joseph Gaï Ramaka's Karmen Geï and my personal favorite of the quartet, Pedro Almodóvar's Law of Desire) on the big screen before, but never with Frameline audiences. I've never seen the other three (Big Eden, Lilies and Yes Nurse, No Nurse) at all.

See anything else in the guide that looks particularly good?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Skies Are Blue

If you're reading this here in Frisco: go outside. If you want to take advantage of the freakishly warm temperatures and see a movie too, check out the free outdoor screening of the Wizard of Oz tonight at dusk in Dolores Park, courtesy of the Neighborhood Theater Foundation. If the weather stays anything like the last couple evenings, you won't need to bring coats and blankets to keep warm. But such weather conditions are not likely to hold for the rest of the shows in the Summer schedule.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Sean McCourt on the SFIFF Golden Gate Awards Ceremony

It's impossible to attend everything at a large film festival like the San Francisco International Film Festival that ended last week, and which can have as many as six ticketed screenings and events running at the same time -- that doesn't include the more informal gatherings that crop up all the time in the hubbub of the Frisco Bay film community's biggest celebration of the year. Read this for a little perspective on the valiant struggle to see just about every film in the program.

So I'm very thankful that Sean McCourt has been another set of eyes and ears for Hell on Frisco Bay at the SFIFF, contributing articles like this one and the following article on the Golden Gate Awards ceremony in which most of the festival prize-winners were announced. Here's Sean:

* * * * *

The winners of the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival Golden Gate Awards were announced last Wednesday night at a ceremony that exemplified the independent attitude and outlook of San Francisco, with the actual announcements and formalities of the evening taking up a very short amount of time—no more than about 25 minutes—while the rest of the night was dedicated to socializing and enjoying the complimentary food and drinks. Imagine that taking place on Oscar night.

Guests arrived at the California Culinary Academy's Careme Room starting at 7 PM, and were greeted by a four-lamp rotating spotlight parked out front, marking the location and lending the affair a bit of that glamorous Hollywood premiere feeling —- though it was still a little too light outside at that point for the full effect to be seen in the sky overhead.

Once inside the high-ceilinged room, filmmakers, festival staff, media and film buffs mingled to the sounds of a live jazz trio while sampling some of the tasty foods that Academy students had whipped up for the occasion. Alcohol was flowing quite liberally as well, thanks to sponsoring brands Grey Goose vodka and Stella Artois beer—and based on the volume of excited chatter filling the room when SFFS Executive Director Graham Leggat stepped up to the podium to speak, it was clear that everybody was fairly relaxed and enjoying themselves.

After getting the crowd to settle down a bit, Leggat went through the expected motions of thanking everybody involved with the festival, and other such customs before reading through the list of winners for various categories not on the top of the bill for the evening. For the last few awards, however, there was the traditional naming of the nominees, then the announcement of who had actually won.

The winners were:

New Directors Award: Vasermil, Mushon Salmona

FIPRESCI Prize: Ballast, Lance Hammer

Chris Holter Humor in Film Award: Time to Die, Dorota Kedzierzawska

Documentary Feature: Up the Yangtze, Yung Chang (pictured above)

Bay Area Documentary Feature: Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, Dawn Logsdon

As Lolis Eric Elie, co-director of Faubourg Tremé, accepted the award, he told the cheering audience, "Winning this award is a statement that our message is being heard, even as far away here in San Francisco."

Aside from the awards, the other announcement that was made during the night’s festivities was that starting in June the San Francisco Film Society will start programming and showing films on one screen at the Sundance Kabuki Theater in San Francisco, keeping Bay Area film aficionados supplied with quality cinema throughout the year.

--Sean McCourt

Thursday, May 15, 2008

On Film

After my last post on the Another Hole In the Head film festival raised the perennial issue of film vs. video projection at film festivals, I got a comment from Indiefest director Jeff Ross. He informed me that there are indeed five films in this year's HoleHead that will be screened in 35mm. In addition to the previously-mentioned Barbarella and Yaji & Kita, the screenings of Alone, Tunnel Rats and Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer will be shown on film.

As I've mentioned before, I tend to find horror films scarier when shown on 35mm prints in theatres. So this is welcome news for me, especially in regard to Alone, which I've decided I don't want to know anything more about until I get to see it for myself once the festival starts. Admittedly, it made me a tad less intrigued by Exte: Hair Extensions to learn that it would definitely be a video projection, at least until I read the last paragraph of this piece, which unearths the social critique in the film. I remind myself that perhaps my favorite Indiefest experience ever was seeing a well-attended digital screening of Takashi Miike's Visitor Q, which is packed with about as much disturbing social critique as a blistering Pasolini film. Sometimes the immediacy of digital can indeed be scarier than the terrible beauty of the most pristine horror film print.

This seems as good a time as any to put another plug in for the Film On Film calendar, maintained by the same team that presents screenings such as this double feature of Dennis Hopper's the Last Movie on 35mm and Anthony Newley's Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? on 16mm at the Roxie on June 4th, the evening before HoleHead settles in there. It's the best place I know to get the latest information on the upcoming Frisco screenings put together by exhibitors and programmers that almost certainly spent more on their print shipping costs than on publicity. Look at it right now; there's some interesting things happening this week in particular that I haven't mentioned here yet.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Asian Films at Another Hole In the Head

Another Hole In the Head. Of all of Frisco Bay's film festivals SF Indie Fest's genre outpost certainly has the most eye-catching name. Taking over the Roxie for two weeks in June, it offers an assortment of selections tailored for horror, science fiction, fantasy and superhero buffs. Few of the films announced for this year's program have been 'done to death' on the festival circuit, and nearly all of them have never screened in Frisco before. It seems unlikely that many will screen again here anytime soon, so if this sounds like your thing, mark your calendars for June 5-21.

I'm not familiar with the line-up's English-language titles, most of which are US or UK productions (though Tunnel Rats, an Uwe Boll film co-produced in Canada and Germany, is programmed as "closing night" film June 19th). It's the Asian titles that are catching the lion's share of my interest. Always on the lookout for Thai films in Frisco cinemas, I'm hoping to catch Alone, made by the directing pair behind the original version of Shutter, Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom. Peter Nellhaus notes the film's many connections to horror films familiar in the West, but recommends it as a quality production that rises above the usual lazy pastiche.

Though Another Hole In the Head has and deserves a reputation as a "horror film festival", the three Japanese selections in this year's line-up exhibit more diversity than that label implies. One film, Exte: Hair Extensions looks to be a straight J-horror film with the requisite ghostly long-black-hair imagery, in this case starring Chiaki Kuriyama of Battle Royale and Kill Bill, vol. 1. Thanks to my friend Seiko for pointing out Chiaki's involvement in this creepy-looking film!

Yaji & Kija: the Midnight Pilgrims, on the other hand, looks about as far-removed from J-horror as possible; it's apparently a fantastical twist on the samurai film genre that comes recommended by none other than Filmbrain. It's also notable as one of only two films explicitly mentioned in the Another Hole In the Head program guide as being shown in 35mm prints (the other being the 40th anniversary screenings of Barbarella just before midnight on the first two Saturdays of the festival).

The Another Hole In the Head programmers know that many of the most outré genre film offerings come from the rough and tumble world of digital filmmaking and distribution. The third Japanese festival offering the Machine Girl, which I viewed after the festival's press conference, typifies this. The film industry is unlikely to take a chance on using the expensive film medium to make and distribute something as bizarre, bloody, cheesily-acted and un-scary as the Machine Girl. Less a horror film than a blood-and-gore-saturated revenge comedy, the film has assets in its unflagging energy and its surfeit of money shots for gorehounds (including one shot that made the film a must-program for a festival called Another Hole in the Head.) But its greatest asset is surely its refusal to take itself seriously at all, a quality I suspect is a function of the cheap video technology being used.

Michael Guillén captures the Machine Girl's tone perfectly in his overview of Twitch's coverage of the film. I'd like to add my admiration for the brazenly illogical plot structure, in which an action-packed opening-credits sequence that I didn't think could possibly be lived up to (how wrong I would be) flashes back to Machine Girl's origin before she's sent on a "kill the foozle" revenge quest. I wasn't the only one in the audience to realize that writer-director Noboru Iguchi had made a film with two climaxes: one to grab your attention at the beginning, and a different one to send you out satisfied. Does it matter if the two sequences fail to reconcile in the film's narrative timeline? I'm not sure it does.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Easter Morning

My second dispatch to GreenCine from the San Francisco International Film Festival (which wrapped on Thursday) can be found here. It's about perhaps my very favorite film of the festival, Bruce Conner's 10-minute Easter Morning. Unlike Conner's most famous pieces like A Movie and Crossroads, the images in this film were shot entirely by Conner himself.

An excerpt from my GreenCine piece:

At some point near the halfway mark in the film, a bridge from the world of nature to that of the man-made is gently placed down, in the form of several shots of a floral-print carpet that leads to images of a loft - wooden floors and furniture, and a giant stone cross seen through the panes of the room's large windows. A nude woman emerges from a glass cabinet, as if reborn into a world of light.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Take the 5:10 to Meme-land

I've been tagged with a meme. Thom Ryan, the mastermind behind one of my very favorite blogs Film of the Year, has selected me, along with four other bloggers (a distinguished group, I might add), to follow some simple instructions for a post on my site, and to pass on the instructions to five more bloggers. Like a chain letter, except without the curse of bad luck at the end if the recipient doesn't participate.

I've been tagged with memes before, and though I've always felt honored to be thought of, I've also felt enough resistance to the idea that I've never complied. This time, I'm in the mood to do so, for several reasons. One, I've lately been more inclined to embrace the myspace-y, facebook-y aspects of the blogosphere rather than pretend that what I do here at Hell on Frisco Bay is so fundamentally different from the activity on those and other social networking sites. Two, with my blogroll currently missing from this blog while I complete my redesigned reconstruction, I'm more compelled than usual to give shout-outs to some of my fellow travelers (though I'm happy to report that my archive, and blogroll, has been recovered by blogger and can be found here until I complete the transition back to this url.) Three, this particular meme gives me an opportunity to point to a book I've been meaning to mention here since I bought it and started paging through it a couple months ago.

That's right, this is a book meme. Here's the instructions Thom sent:

1) Pick up the nearest book.
2) Open to page 123.
3) Locate the fifth sentence.
4) Post the next three sentences on your blog and in so doing...
5) Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

OK, Thom!

1) So, when I received this tag, I was mere feet away from Scott MacDonald's Canyon Cinema: the Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor, filled with primary source material concerning the venerable Frisco Bay institution that grew out of Bruce Baillie's film exhibitions in Canyon, California by Redwood Regional Park.

2) I can't resist giving a little bit more context. The opposing page 122, it so happens, reprints a fan letter to Canyon Cinema filmmaker Bruce Conner (and a current research subject, the reason why this book was so close at hand this afternoon) from none other than John Lennon, in response to Conner's dazzling Looking For Mushrooms. As he explains in an interview later in the book, Conner sent the film to Lennon because it included a Beatles song as its soundtrack, and he wanted the composers' blessing so he could legally show the film.

3) It's page 123 that we're concerned with at the moment, however, and it's got a letter from a Frisco Bay filmmaker I'm less familiar with (having seen only one of his works, Six Loop-Paintings), Barry Spinello. He's writing about how his 1969 film Soundtrack was influenced by a 1938 John Cage text found in Silence.

4) The three sentences:

Any image (his example is a picture of Beethoven) or mark on the soundtrack successively repeated will produce a distinct sound with distinct pitch and value - different from the sound and value of any other mark. The new music, he says, will be built along the lines of film, with the basic unit of rhythm logically being the frame. With the advent of magnetic tape a few years later and the enormous advantages it has in convenience and speed (capacity to record and play back live sound, and erase) the filmic development of electronic music initially envisioned by Cage was completely obscured.
5) Now, to select the five bloggers I'm to pass this meme to. I'm going to stay local here...
Max Goldberg of Text of Light comes to mind because he wrote a terrific review of the MacDonald book a few weeks ago.
Michael Guillén of the Evening Class comes to mind next, as he's the one who let me know about Max's blog.
Sister Rye comes to mind because I wish she would post a little more often.
Ryland Walker Knight of Vinyl Is Heavy comes to mind because I owe him an e-mail right now.
Rob Davis of Errata comes to mind because he's only going to be local for another week or so. Frisco Bay's loss is Chicago's windfall.

Thanks again, Thom!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

51st SFIFF Awards Announced

I didn't make it to the SFIFF awards night last night. As usual there was a film that took priority. This year it was Eric Rohmer's delightful, bucolic the Romance of Astrea and Celadon, very much a product of its director despite its fifth-century setting. Rohmer's Catholic worldview comes through in the oddest of places- I never supposed I'd ever see a film with a monotheistic druid in it.

Susan Gerhard has wrapped up the award-winners nicely though. Glad to see Ballast awarded the FIPRESCI critics' prize; I interviewed director Lance Hammer yesterday afternoon, and his film deserves all the attention it can get. I also liked that Aditya Assarat was mentioned by the New Directors Competition jury for Wonderful Town- by no means a masterpiece but a very promising first feature with a strong sense of place.

Though I didn't see all of the films they were up against in their Golden Gate Award categories, I can also heartily applaud Madame Tutli-Putli's capturing of the Animated Short prize, and Writing History With Lightning: the Triumph and Tragedy of America's First Blockbuster in the Youth Works category. The latter film is, as its title implies, a 10-minute historical documentary on the social impact of D.W. Griffith's a Birth of a Nation. I wonder if its director Charlotte Burger might have a future as a Kevin-Brownlow-in-the-making?

I did see all of the films vying for the New Visions Golden Gate Award, and though I was pulling for the formalistic brilliance of Jeanne Liotta's Observando El Cielo or Leighton Pierce's Number One or Thorsten Fleisch's Energy!, I see the jury preferred to award the work which had the most visible human presence on the camera (and not just behind it), Tod Herman's Cabinet. Cabinet also won the Golden Gate Award for Bay Area-made short, with Adam Kekar's paranoia-inducing On the Assassination of the President in second place.

Audience Awards are usually announced at the closing night screening at the Castro. Which I'll also be missing- Bela Tarr's the Man From London takes priority in this instance!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Sean McCourt on Black Francis and The Golem

The San Francisco International Film Festival is chugging along, and will wrap up its festivities on Thursday night with a Vanity Fair-sponsored charity screening of Gonzo: the Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson at the Castro Theatre (before that venue embarks on its post-SFIFF schedule with a week-long engagement of Godard's Contempt). I've been averaging about a film a day, and of those films that still have screenings before the festival's end, I can recommend the Secret of the Grain, Ballast and My Winnipeg the most highly.

I'm excited to present a piece on a recent festival event by fellow film junkie Sean McCourt, who has written for the Guardian and elsewhere. Now he lends his skillful observations to Hell On Frisco Bay. Take it away, Sean:

* * * * *

Beginning with his stint as the principal songwriter and leader of seminal alternative rock band the Pixies, Black Francis (nee Charles Thompson, a.k.a. Frank Black) has made a career of defying the norm, of charting his own course, and of branching out and trying new things, be it with his Pixies band mates, or during his eclectically varied solo releases—so it was not surprising when the announcement was made that he would be taking part in this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, performing his new original soundtrack for the classic silent film The Golem.

A line wrapped around the block at the Castro Theatre on April 25th as fans anxiously awaited the live premiere of the new score for the 1920 film that tells the tale of a Rabbi that creates a creature out of clay and uses supernatural powers to bring it to life. Much of the audience was composed of, as one would surmise, Generation Xers and younger fans of Francis' work. There was, however, a healthy sampling of older people who came to check out the event as well. In any case, it was a full house at the theater, with festival staff getting on a microphone shortly before start time and asking to see if there were any empty seats so that some of the many people still standing outside hoping to get in could be accommodated.

The handpicked group of musicians that Francis selected to work with him for the project was composed of Eric Drew Feldman on keyboards, Joseph Pope on bass, Ralph Carney on horns, Duane Jarvis on guitar, and Jason Carter behind the drum kit. Feldman, Jarvis and Carter have all worked with Francis in the past in different capacities, while the rest of the group has performed with artists such as Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, the B-52s and Angst. Francis and his band, who were already seated and warming up when they were introduced, were positioned on the floor in front of the stage, much like an orchestra at an opera or traditional stage production. Once the lights went down and the film started, the band launched into their material with a quick count-off from Francis, and immediately propelled the audience into the ethereal world of The Golem.

The collection of songs that Francis wrote for the score weaved lyrics that were sometimes based on the proceedings seen on screen (such as when he sang “You be the master/I’ll be the servant” as the Golem followed the Rabbi to the Emperor’s palace), while at other times seeming like he was trying to capture a feeling or emotion instead of telling a straight ahead narrative based on the events in the film. Francis incorporated the loud/quiet/loud dynamic that he has become known for over the past 20 years into the soundtrack, but not as heavily as he once did with the Pixies—the caterwauling noise and guttural screams from the Surfer Rosa era were mostly absent, and he concentrated more on sweet melodies and including some tasty horn licks from Carney into the mix. It's not the first time that Francis has based his songwriting on early films—the Pixies' hit song Debaser (“Got me a movie / I want you to know / Slicing up eyeballs / ha ha ha ho”) was of course written about Luis Buñuel's 1929 surrealist picture Un Chien Andalou, and the Pixies also covered the tune “In Heaven” from David Lynch’s cult favorite Eraserhead.

Since the Golem's soundtrack was written as a collection of songs, as opposed to a consistent background score,there were pauses in between scenes which led to some awkward silences—and opened the door for what was the one big drawback to the evening—the annoying interruptions of "Master of Ceremonies" Roy Zimmerman, who would occasionally interject with what he apparently thought were funny little quips and observations, but they only distracted from the dream-like state that the music and film created together. Pointless cracks about scenes being available on You Tube and comparing the Golem's hairstyle to that of "Diane Feinstein, circa 1986" drew a few chuckles from the audience, but in the grand scheme of things, Zimmerman's microphone should have been cut off—his participation detracted from what was otherwise a largely successful blending of modern music and vintage film.

For those in the audience who had only seen The Golem on home video before, watching it on the grand screen at the Castro was indeed a special treat, not only for the size factor, but also because of the beautiful print that was secured for the occasion. Directed by Carl Boese and Paul Wegener (who also portrayed the Golem), the 1920 film was photographed by Karl Freund, known for his work on Fritz Lang's Metropolis and F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh. The filmmakers blended classic elements of German Expressionism such as strong symbolism and manipulation of light and shadows, and took advantage of sets, designed by Hans Poelzig, that played with the bizarre architecture of the fictional ghetto. All of which was wonderfully complimented by the new music.

All in all, the evening appeared to be a rousing success, the marriage of Francis’ score with the imagery of the film drew an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience at the conclusion of the screening. There is talk of the soundtrack possibly getting a future release, either with the film on DVD, or as a stand-alone album, both of which would be most welcome—though hopefully Roy Zimmerman won’t be allowed to add any sort of commentary track. Perhaps Asteroth can be summoned once again to take care of him.

--Sean McCourt

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Marina Theatre

Yesterday was a day for watching superhero films. I went to the 7PM showing of Iron Man at the newly reopened Marina Theatre on Chestnut Street, and then to the 11PM showing of Big Man Japan as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival. It's hard to picture two films tackling the subject of male power fantasy from more completely different angles. I enjoyed watching both and plan to write on them as soon as I have a chance.

But first, a few words on the Marina Theatre, which was opened in 1928 and showed second-run films for thirty-odd years before changing its name to the Cinema 21 and showing first-run engagements. It closed in 2001; the last film I saw there was Shadow of a Vampire and already I'd forgotten what the interior looked like until I peeked at this site. The new version of the Marina Theatre was designed to accommodate the Wallgreens pharmacy that has moved into a large portion of the ground floor. As the smaller of the two screens, both upstairs, is not quite ready for the public, Iron Man is only being shown in the larger, 250-seat theatre. It's probably now the "nicest" of the Lee Neighborhood Theatre screens, not quite as large as that of the Presidio's main house but in a symmetrical room that feels like it was built for showing movies.

Except for one drawback: the screen is a little low, and there's no way for people sitting on the left side of the theatre to exit without crossing in front of it. Which means that shadows of the heads tall people on a restroom run disturb the goal of immaculate projection. Also, for some reason all the house lights went up during the end credits. I know we don't want people tripping over each other as they head for the exits, but might it be possible to find an alternative solution? I like supporting a neighborhood theatre and not a downtown megaplex on the occasions when I want to see a screen-saturated Hollywood movie, but I'm not too crazy about having to strain to read the names of the people who worked on the film (a number of them Frisco Bay residents, as ILM worked on the Iron Man effects). After a while I got sick of it, and left like everybody else, thus missing a Samuel L. Jackson cameo I didn't realize was going to happen.

Iron Man is also playing at another Frisco neighborhood theatre, the Balboa, where tomorrow there will be prizes for people dressed up as their favorite Marvel villain. If only I had time to make that Taskmaster outfit I'd always dreamed of putting together when i was a kid...