Friday, January 30, 2009

Noir News is...

Greetings from Noir City! First of all: make sure you read Max Goldberg's latest essay inspired by the festival and its newsman theme, found here. It's far more insightful than anything I've ever written about noir myself, that's for sure. Also of related interest are Brecht Andercsh's comments on being "festive at a festival".

Wednesday's San Francisco Film Society co-presentation night at Noir City 7 went pretty much as I expected. Film Society creative director Miguel Pendas came on stage before the film screenings and talked about the grant money the SFFS is planning to distribute to Frisco Bay filmmakers, and spoke of upcoming events of interest to an audience hungry for the cinema of yesteryear. Then Noir City's own Eddie Muller joined him on stage to talk about an in-the-works series of international noir titles, commenting that it's possible to "end up face-down in the gutter anywhere in the world." No details on series dates or titles were revealed, but Pendas spoke of scouting a large-scale series of Japanese noir at last year's San Sebastian International Film Festival, while for his part Muller recounted a recent trip to Buenos Aires to meet the archivists who made last summer's announcement of rediscovered footage lost from Fritz Lang's sci-fi parable Metropolis. While in Argentina, Muller was able to open the lid on a trove of early films made by the great noir cinematographer John Alton in the 1930s, when he was working in that country's film industry. I wonder how long it takes to get a film subtitled in English when it's never been exported before? Would an earmarked donation to the Film Noir Foundation help speed the process along?

The print of Lang's newspaper/crime drama While the City Sleeps was not, as I had predicted after checking various on-line sources, screened in a "Superscope" aspect ratio. However, the compositions didn't look the least bit cropped or awkward, and a bit of poking around the internet reveals that Lang did not intend the film to be shown widescreen. It was great to see such a terrific cast including Dana Andrews, Vincent Price, Thomas Mitchell (last seen in Alias Nick Beal Monday night), George Sanders and Ida Lupino, in action, and the newsroom setting of the film couldn't be more appropriate to the theme of this year's festival. By 1956 a rather late entry in the noir cycle, While the City Sleeps is less concerned with the psychic turmoil of the insane "Lipstick murderer" than it is in the reaction of the larger society to his crimes. Andrews' protagonist is in many ways a mirror to the murderer (played by John Barrymore, Jr.) even if he seems outwardly untortured, even by his own temptation to infidelity which is portrayed as a natural male weakness at worst. I'm eager to see the other Lang/Andrews collaboration Beyond a Reasonable Doubt when it plays on Saturday.

Before introducing the co-feature Shakedown, Muller plugged two more film events on the coming calendar. First, on February 14th, is the Silent Film Festival's winter event, the centerpiece of which is the "proto-noir" Sunrise, which he called his favorite silent film of all time. I'm with him, which is why I was so pleased to be able to research the production and reception of the F.W. Murnau-directed film for the festival, as I prepared an essay for the program guide and a slideshow on the first Academy Awards ceremony that will show before the film unspools to Dennis James's musical accompaniment that evening.

Muller also pointed out a double-bill put together by the Film on Film Foundation on March 8th at the Pacific Film Archive: the Bigamist and Outrage, both noirs starring and directed by Ida Lupino, neither of which I've seen before. You can bet I'll be there. This bill is not the only noir coming to the PFA in the next several weeks, though. A series entitled One-Two Punch: Pulp Writers on Film runs Feb. 13-21 and includes adaptations of the writing of Cornell Woolrich, Frederic Brown, Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford, tackled by noir and neo-noir directors like Robert Siodmak and George Armitage.

Shakedown was terrific, incidentally. It was great to see Frisco circa 1950 in the outdoor shots and through the picture windows of the apartments. But the story, in which Howard Duff's ambition as a photojournalist takes him into the lap of dangerous gangsters with his camera as his only protection, charts one of those grippingly doomed trajectories that pulls me in deeply enough that "spot-the-location" games quickly become unnecessary. What I found most fascinating about Shakedown, in the end, was the fact that just as location shooting, perhaps influenced by Italian Neo-Realism, was inflecting noir with a blurring of the boundary between captured documentary and staged fiction, here was this film whose protagonist blurs the boundary between capturing and staging a photograph, and must deal with the consequences.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


This week, some moviegoers are flocking to see the films currently competing for prizes ensuring a legacy, at the very least in the almanacs and surveys of the future. Others, at least here in Frisco, are mobbing the Noir City festival and other venues (the Stanford, perhaps?) to watch films that have already stood the test of time.

But for those with an interest in charting the position of so-called ephemeral media in the ever-changing tide of motion picture history, it might be worth popping over to the Disposable Film Festival at the Roxie, ATA, and Oddball to see videos exclusively made with "non-professional" cameras: webcams, cellphone cameras, one-time-use cameras, etc. Some (certainly not all) of the shorts presented may be available on Youtube and the like, but this is a chance to see them in an uncompressed format on a big screen with an audience. As the festival explains, "these films are often made quickly, casually, and sometimes even unintentionally." Rest assured, they were not selected in that manner. The competitive program happens tomorrow (Thursday) night at the Roxie at 8PM (a sold-out show) and repeats at 10PM. More events at other venues occur throughout the weekend. Details here.

(Image from Not In Kansas Anymore by Rebekah Estey)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Vigo & Vertov

The legendary French filmmaker Jean Vigo, upon introducing his first film À propos de Nice in 1930, made a profile of the ideal social documentarian: "thin enough to slide into a Romanian key-hole and able at the crack of dawn to film Prince Carol in his night-shirt, if such a subject is indeed worthy of our interest" and "sufficiently small to position himself beneath the chair of the croupier, that great god of the Monte Carlo casino." Vigo was positioning the social documentary as a democratizing force, revealing privileged knowledge to viewers who would be in the dark without this access.

The inventions of the camera and the sound recorder brought into the world the first technological eyewitnesses (and "ear witnesses"). Their products' authority could be trusted in a way that the words of a speaker or writer, or the sketches of an artist, each potentially subject to the faults of memory or the embellishment of imagination, could not. Of course a camera (and, in equivalent ways, a sound recording device, though I'll leave these aside since I'm focusing on silent cinema at the moment) and a filmed image can still be manipulated through editing, special effects, tricks of the lens, etc. And of course the image captured is always going to be dependent on the biases of the camera operator, who has control over when to start or stop cranking and at what speed, not to mention control over the direction the camera is pointed. But for all the control she or he has, there are always aspects of a filmed image that are beyond a camera operator's control, (perhaps) unless he or she is filming systematically in a highly-controlled environment like a Hollywood studio. A certain truth will inevitably be contained in the image, no matter how much imagination or bias the filmmaker applies in attempt to manipulate it.

All but the least sophisticated audience understands and can usually recognize, just by viewing, the differences between the two modes: the highly systematic studio style of filming in which each detail can be assumed to have been planned, and the "unbound" style that, though a great deal of planning may be involved, leaves space for randomness to be captured and for some of the truths of the world, apart from filmmaker intention, to be apparent. The former is often tagged with terms like "feature" or "narrative" filmmaking, while the latter is generally called "documentary". The distinction between these two modes is the reason why audiences find value in documentary, and it's also the reason why such films are often held to a different standard of scrutiny.

Which brings me to Dziga Vertov's 1929 masterpiece the Man With the Movie Camera. Surely it informed Vigo's filmmaking; Vertov's younger brother Boris Kaufman was Vigo's cinematographer for the director's entire (mournfully brief) career, and it must also have been the inspiration for Vigo's quote about filming through keyholes and from under chairs. Vertov's film begins with a set of titles listing qualities that pronounce it in the second category: no intertitles, no script, no "theatre" or its accouterments of actors or sets. The film's entire purpose seems to be to demonstrate and argue for the range of uses of the documentarian's camera: to show a process up close; to illustrate the huge scale of an object; to witness a location too dangerous for a crowd; to show using slow-motion how an activity can be performed by a superb athlete; to show through editing juxtapositions the range of beauty found among humans, and much much more.

But it's fascinating that along the way Vertov is constantly reminding the viewer of the other mode and how it can in fact co-mingle with the documentary approach. The very first image seen is a special effect achieved through split-screen. The film also employs highly-systematized techniques like animation and the obvious manipulation of sets, and, contrary to the title-card proclamation, the use of actors. In particular, Vertov and Kaufman's eldest brother Mikhael Kaufman plays the role of a camera operator on the move. By making the melding of the two modes explicit, the Man With the Movie Camera seems to be a warning of the dangers of confusing them, and how this confusion might be seized on by the propagandist.

À propos de Nice and the Man with the Movie Camera play together at the Pacific Film Archive on Thursday, January 29th, with live piano accompaniment provided by Judith Rosenberg. It's part of a series entitled the Way of the Termite: the Essay in Cinema that began last Thursday and runs through April, with titles announced (so far) though February 24th. Other films included in the series are Fernando Birri's revered Tire dié and Luis Buñuel's Land Without Bread, playing together with two other short films tonight at 7:30 PM, Humphrey Jennings' stirring a Diary For Timothy February 3, Jean Rouch's the Mad Masters and Jean-Marie Teno's Chief! February 5 (a program also tying in with the African Film Festival), Perfumed Nightmare February 10, and Forough Farrokhzad's masterpiece the House is Black, playing with Trial February 17th. The series was guest-curated by Jean-Pierre Gorin, who was expected to attend this weekend at Thursday's screening as well as on Friday and Saturday with screenings of one of his collaborations with Jean-Luc Godard, Letter to Jane, but "unforeseen circumstances" forced a cancellation of his appearances. The films will go on, however, and deserve to be seen on the big screen.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Society Information

Noir City 7, a newspaper-themed edition of the beloved festival, opened last night and runs through February 1st. Dismal weather has arrived with the festival, all the better for enhancing the rain-soaked city mood associated with noir (not to mention for enhancing the water table.) Check the Film on Film Foundation blog for some pointed comments on "noirsters" and film recommendations, and sf360 for an interview with Noir City publisher Eddie Muller.

This Wednesday, January 28, the Noir City screenings of Fritz Lang's extreme-widescreen While the City Sleeps and the Frisco-set Shakedown will be co-presented by the San Francisco Film Society. Last year at the SFFS/Noir City co-presentation of D.O.A., Film Society director Graham Leggat announced an intention to team with the Film Noir Foundation to put together an international film noir series- still no word on when that might be or what it might involve, but I hope it's still in the cards, and that it involves more than the obvious European suspects- I'd love to see some Latin American or Southeast Asian noir someday! Perhaps there will be an update on Wednesday.

The Film Society has a hand (or both) in a multitude of events including classes and film screenings all over town over the coming months, however. They resume programming a screen at the Kabuki on January 30th, when the Uruguayan hit the Pope's Toilet begins a week-long engagement. The just-Oscar-nominated documentary Trouble the Water plays four matinees on the SFFS screen on January 31, February 1, 7 & 8. These are joined by the Eritrean war-set Lake of Fire (Feb. 6-12), the 2007 SFIAAFF Audience Award winner the Owl and the Sparrow (Feb. 13-19) a Danish thriller called Just Another Love Story (Feb. 20-26) and a documentary on modern-day philosophers that's already getting buzz off the coast of cinephile island, Examined Life (Mar. 6-12).

I've not seen any of those, but I have seen the SFFS screen film scheduled to play from February 27 through March 5: Silent Light, by young Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas. It's quite something, and I'm thrilled to know it's going to be in town for a whole glorious week. It's a film that fell through the cracks between my year-end lists for sf360, since it didn't play commercially on Frisco Bay in 2008, but was technically not "unreleased" since it was picked up by a distributor and played for a week at New York City's MoMA last September. The Secret of the Grain and In the City of Sylvia are two other films that fell into in this netherworld of list ineligibility, that I would have otherwise seriously considered for my top ten; perhaps the SFFS will bring them to the Kabuki this year, as they are Silent Light? One can hope. All are beautiful films that I can hardly imagine trying to appreciate in the distracting world of home video.

On February 3, the Film Society is presenting 13 Most Beautiful... at the Palace of Fine Arts. This event pairs a set of Andy Warhol's enigmatic Screen Tests in an unorthodox manner: accompanied by live music performed by Dean & Britta. The lucky thirteen faces to expect are: Paul America, Susan Bottomly, Ann Buchanan, Freddy Herko, "Baby" Jane Holzer, Dennis Hopper, Billy Name, Nico, Richard Rheem, Lou Reed, Edie Sedgwick, Ingrid Superstar and Mary Woronov. I saw Hopper, Holzer, Buchanan, and number of others including Gerard Malanga, Susan Sontag and John Cale on my last trip to New York five and a half years ago, silently screened together in a museum; this promises to be a very different presentation. This set is touring to promote a new DVD release, billed as "the first ever authorized DVD of Andy Warhol's films" though some of us are aware that Helmut appeared on DVD a few years ago.

Of course the Film Society's biggest annual event is the San Francisco International Film Festival. Its 52nd edition will run from April 23 to May 7, 2009, and two restoration premieres have already been announced: a Woman Under the Influence by John Cassavetes, and Le Amiche by Michaelangelo Antonioni are expected to screen in new prints on April 25th at the Castro Theatre. That's good news, if I do say so myself.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities: Berlin & Noir

I've been missing my friends attending the Sundance Film Festival this week, but from what I can make out nobody's really seen anything earth-shattering there yet anyway. Or that's what it sounds like with those sour grapes in my ears, anyway. Meanwhile, I attended three terrific film programs at the Berlin & Beyond festival at the Castro Theatre last weekend. Two rarely-shown archival programs and a US premiere have more than made up for whatever I'm missing in Park City this week. And all three in one way or another worked as a warm-up to the next big festival at the Castro this week: Noir City 7.

The new film was Jerichow, my belated introduction to the work of up-and-coming director Christian Petzold. Though it contains none of the stylistic markings of classic noir, and its sunny small-town setting seems counter to the typical urban landscapes of true noir, Jerichow nonetheless classifies rather neatly as a neo-noir genre deconstruction, building on familiar themes of deception, betrayal and fate, in a fresh context.

And yet, the context is not such a stretch from the American crime films of the late 1940s either. Two common film noir concerns are the role of the war veteran in a peacetime society, and the economic options open to immigrants and other marginalized citizens under a powerful capitalist system. In Jerichow the war vet (Benno Fürmann) is back from serving with NATO forces in Afghanistan, and the immigrant (Hilmi Sözer) is a German Turk running a chain of modest eateries with his blonde wife (Nina Hoss). These three characters form a twisted triangle of intrigue that kept my rapt interest around each curving bend in the narrative highway. I'd very much like to see the film again to understand better how Petzold maneuvers expectations and subverts them.

Wim Wenders' Kings of the Road may feature stunning black-and-white cinematography by the great Robby Müller but its noir connection is undoubtedly the weakest of the these three: it's a rambling, often comic road movie set mostly in environments even less urban than those of Jerichow. There are plenty of detours without echoes of Detour.

Bruno (played by Wenders regular Rüdiger Vogler) travels in a 1.66:1 wide truck from town to town, repairing and occasionally operating the projection equipment in small cinemas, many of them reduced to porno house status on their way to complete obsolescence. After witnessing a spectacular, laughably failed suicide attempt by Robert (Hanns Zischler, 30 years before his role in Munich), Bruno invites him along for the ride, as long as he agrees not to swap stories.

Later on, Robert delivers to his newspaperman father a manifesto against the telling of stories and other verbal expressions. He delivers it nearly silently. Kings of the Road seems to be for Wenders a similar manifesto, identifying his brand of 1970s contemplative cinema as a media revolution in which a new generation could demand a voice even if it had no particular words it wanted to say. It's this formal strategy, which brought to my mind a kinship with Chantal Akerman's Je tu il elle (solidified by a post-screening chat with a more experienced Akerman-watcher), that makes Kings of the Road for me Wenders' best film, along of course with its cinephile-catnip inside peek at the mechanical processes of film exhibition.

So what's the noir connection? Again, it's the post-war thread- a different country in a different phase of soul-searching, but there's no doubt that World War II and the subsequent German Economic Miracle hang like a shadow over this film- the latter repeatedly critiqued as incomplete at best, not least by the Wenders' travel route along the border of West and East Germany. So even if it doesn't do so by the dramatic means of, say, Thieves' Highway or They Live By Night, perhaps it performs a similar function, questioning: "What good is prosperity if its handmaiden is destruction?"

The third film of the weekend is the one most readers probably are already quite familiar with: Josef von Sternberg's the Blue Angel. I'd seen it before myself, but this was my first viewing of the so-called "English-language" version prepared by UFA for export in the early days of talking pictures before subtitles caught on. This version is worth commenting on; at first I thought it ironic that an English-dialogue version would play a German-language film festival, while across Frisco Bay at the Pacific Film Archive the original German-language version will play on February 1 as part of a Sternberg retrospective. But watching the rare, unsubtitled 35mm print on Monday I realized the rationale for screening it at Berlin & Beyond: not all of the dialogue is in English, in fact a great deal is untranslated German. This is because, unlike most trans-nationally-set films today (at least those made in Hollywood), the English speaking is presented as if organic to the story. Emil Jannings' professor of English practices the immersion method in his classroom, and speaks German only briefly to a few side characters. Marlene Dietrich as Lola is explained to be a native English speaker (and her accent is nearly convincing most of the time), an excuse for other characters to eschew German while she's in the room. Incidentally, an even earlier Dietrich film called the Woman Men Yearn For will screen in Niles on February 7th.

I love how the morality play of the Blue Angel works as an advertisement for the talking picture. The respectable professional (Jannings) gets lured into a debased existence by his flirtation with that most disreputable of entertainments: the variety cabaret. But entertainment itself is not dangerous unless there is a live performer (Dietrich) to seduce the spectator in her dressing room. The solution is to watch these debauched performances on the safe surface of a flat screen, far from the sound stage where it was captured. One can experience the titillation without the risk of ending up in a clown suit.

There's no doubt that the Blue Angel is an important precursor to film noir. It may not be concerned with deception as a major theme, as most noirs do, but it is as packed with the noir quality of obsession as any film featuring a femme fatale. And of course the interplay of light and shadow prefigure the chiaroscuro that became so prevalent in 1940s Hollywood. The story of how Germany's film artists fled to America to darken our screens with a particularly noirish pessimism has been told more times than practically any founding myth. Data in support can be gathered with ease at Noir City 7, where a good many of the films had major creative roles filled by at least one expatriate of Germany or its film industry. Here's a partial list to close out for the night:

Robert Siodmak: director, the Killers

Fritz Lang: director, While the City Sleeps & Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Billy Wilder: writer, director, Ace in the Hole

Michael Curtiz: director, the Unsuspected

Hans Dreier: art director, Chicago Deadline, the Big Clock & Alias Nick Beal

Franz Bachelin: art director, Chicago Deadline & Alias Nick Beal

Franz Waxman: composer, the Unsuspected & Alias Nick Beal

Sunday, January 18, 2009


I feel remiss in not having mentioned it here before, but it's still not quite too late to let my readers know about a terrific film now playing at the 4-Star Theatre: Johnny To's Sparrow. Like Robert Bresson's Pickpocket, it finds inspiration in the criminal art of sleight-of-hand to provide viewers with a pure cinema experience. Quite unlike that fifty-year-old film, however, Sparrow is full of brightness, color, and jaunty music- so much that it has been likened to a musical without singing. Let me quote from Peter Nellhaus's recent review:

Simon Yam almost dances his way out of his dump of an apartment in the film's first scene. The grand set piece could well be called "The Umbrellas of Hong Kong". Credit To for further undoing genre expectations by having the final confrontation between Yam and his gang against their rivals as a slow motion stroll in the rain. Replacing the bullet ballet is choreographed movement of umbrellas, hand movements, razors cutting cloth, and splashes of water.
For my part, I think this is quite possibly Johnny To's best film of the dozen or so I've seen, certainly his best since 1998's a Hero Never Dies. It is down to only one 4:40 PM showing per day from now until Thursday January 22, but I can think of no better way to cinematically ring out the Year of the Rat than to watch these sneak thieves in action on the 4-Star screen.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Wajda Statistics

Name: Andrzej Wajda (pronounced VY-da)

Place of birth: Suwalki, Poland

Date of birth: March 6th, 1926

Age upon release of his first feature film, a Generation: 28

Number of film credits as director listed at imdb since then: 45

Number of films screening in the Pacific Film Archive retrospective running January 16th through February 18th: 12

Films of his that I've seen before: a Generation, Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds, coincidentally the three playing at the PFA this weekend.

My personal favorite of those three: Kanal

Film most recently added to the PFA series: the Maids of Wilko, replacing the previously scheduled series closer Danton.

Highest-rated film according to imdb: Man of Marble

Second-highest: the Promised Land

Only film to have won the Cannes Palme D'or: Man of Iron

Writers who have published English-language pieces on Wajda on the internet: acquarello, Adam Bingham, Michael Brooke, Rahul Hamid, pacze moj, Matilda Mroz, Renata Murawska (interview) Elżbieta Ostrowska, Boris Trbac

The Wajda films I should make my highest priority to see (a.k.a. "Most Vital Wajda"): click here

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

I Only Have Two Eyes 2008

I'm not traveling to Sundance this year, but film festival season begins again here on Frisco Bay this Thursday with the opening of Berlin and Beyond at the Castro Theatre. And the Pacific Film Archive re-opens for the semester with tomorrow night's screening of Amarcord. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and SFMoMA screenings are already in full swing. Yes, thirteen days into 2009, it's high time to close the book on 2008. I saw a lot of great films, and a few weeks ago I drew up lists of my favorite new releases and unreleased films, as well as a few other year-end thoughts, for sf360.

My cinematic interests continued to lean toward the historical, however, and once again I'm excited to unveil my personal choices of favorite repertory/revival screenings I was able to attend in Frisco Bay cinemas. I'm even more excited to present the weighing-in of fourteen local compatriots in cinephilia on that subject. No two eyes can witness all the splendid film presentations that occur in a year here. Though I was present at at least one screening cited by each contributer, they each list multiple films I ruefully couldn't fit into my schedule (I think I'm probably most upset that I wasn't able to see the Passion of Joan of Arc with a full orchestra and chorus at the Castro in November). Collectively, these fifteen lists might provide a reasonably accurate view of the range and depth of cinematic experiences to be had for a Frisco Bay rep-head in 2008. I'm honored to have gotten such thoughtful and informed responses!

In alphabetical order, the participants are (click on the contributor's name for the list):

Ben Armington
Robert Davis, surgeon general of the Daily Plastic
Michael Guillén, schoolmaster of the Evening Class
Adam Hartzell, contributer to, Hell on Frisco Bay and elsewhere
Michael Hawley, operator of film-415
Ryland Walker Knight, conveyor of Vinyl is Heavy
Frako Loden, contributer to SF Weekly and elsewhere
Carl Martin, co-founder of the Film On Film Foundation
Miriam Montag
Shahn, proprietor of six martinis and the seventh art
Lincoln Spector, editor of Bayflicks
Marisa Vela, painter with a cinematic eye
Jason Wiener, of the eponymous Jason Watches Movies
Austin Wolf-Sothern, creator of Placenta Ovaries

And here's my own list, in chronological order of viewing:

Speedy at the Pacific Film Archive

How much more fun can there be than being in a room full of kids and kids-at-heart experiencing a top-notch Harold Lloyd film shot on the streets of New York City? Speedy has just about anything one might want to see in a movie: obsolete amusement park rides, streetcar chases, a geezers vs. gangsters brawl, and even an extended cameo from Babe Ruth. With Bruce Loeb on the piano and free ice cream after the screening, this is what I call revival! Part of the PFA's Movie Matinees For All Ages series.

They All Laughed at the Castro

Another shot-on-location film where Gotham becomes the playground for an exuberant, cheery cast, in this case including Audrey Hepburn, Ben Gazzara, Dorothy Stratten and John Ritter. It was possible to momentarily forget the tragic fates that would befall certain cast members as I found myself immersed in this charming universe that falls somewhere between those of Blake Edwards and Robert Altman. And it's at least as good a film as almost anything they made. Magnificent on the giant Castro screen, and the perfect capper to an emotional Peter Bogdanovich weekend at that theatre, with the director present for questions afterward.

The Brig at the PFA

The Film on Film Foundation four-walled the Pacific Film Archive on Easter Sunday evening to bring focus to legendary filmmaker-critic Jonas Mekas. I had never seen any of his work on the big screen before, and the Brig knocked me senseless. It's a play filmed in a very tightly-enclosed space, recalling at times the Brechtian brutality of Nagisa Oshima's Death By Hanging. The military prison milieu, shot in a nearly-documentary style, felt simultaneously "of its time" (1964) and disturbingly timeless.

Carriage Trade at SF Camerawork

I sadly missed most of the multi-venue Warren Sonbert retrospective put on by Konrad Steiner of kino21 and Guardian editor Johnny Ray Huston. But I did catch this epic of editing, a radical precursor to high-gloss "non-narrative" travelogues like Powaqqatsi and Baraka. As a 16mm projector whirred in the back of the room, an astonishing array of images told a kind of narrative of their own- a very personal, not-exactly-representational one for about an hour's duration.

Bend of the River and the Far Country at the Stanford

Though nearly all of the other films I'm citing here were brand-new to me in 2008, this pair of Anthony Mann North-Westerns were longtime favorites experienced for the first time on the big screen- for some reason they'd been left out of the PFA's 2004 retrospective. I cannot favor one over the other as they seem, especially when paired like this, two halves of a single inventory of philosophies on politics and human nature. Bend of the River is exquisitely scripted and acted, The Far Country particularly well-composed. Or is it vice versa?

Syndromes and a Century at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

The other film listed here I'd seen before, and yes it was only just over a year prior but that still counts as revival in my book. This time I'd cleared my calendar to watch two sets of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's short films at YBCA, but when their arrival was delayed the screenings were replaced by two showings of his Syndromes and a Century. I spent one trying to puzzle out its commemorative enigmas, and the other letting myself steep in the green of its ambiance.

Jujiro at the Castro

When drawing up my list last year, I recused myself from mentioning San Francisco Silent Film Festival screenings because I'm a member of the festival's writers group, responsible for researching and writing educational materials on the films programmed. But this year I can't restrain myself, at least not in the case of the film I researched, Teinosuke Kinugasa's Jujiro. The July festival was full of memorable screenings, but none for me more memorable than the presentation of this grim 'floating world' vision full of haunting close-ups and Vertov-worthy montages. Stephen Horne performed a largely-improvised score on piano and flute- instruments which he played simultaneously. A nearly-packed Castro was hushed in awe like I've never experienced it before.

Bells Are Ringing at the PFA

I really don't have much to say about this one right now; it's amazing, it's a Vincent Minnelli musical, it was part of a wonderful widescreen series, and the above screen capture from one of the film's best numbers is certainly worth at least a thousand words.

My Sex Life...Or How I Got Into An Argument at the Clay

I'd never come close to "getting" Arnaud Desplechin until watching this film, and to a lesser extent, Life of the Dead, when they were brought by the San Francisco Film Society for its successful new French Cinema Now series. But after these films and especially this film, I was inspired to re-rent Esther Kahn and recognize it for the masterpiece that it is, and primed to fall head over heels for a Christmas Tale. I'm still not sure I'm getting what everyone else is getting, but what I do get is a filmmaker whose camera shows the actor's physical performance as primary, perhaps the foundational building block of human art. Every camera position and cut comes in service to that. Thanks to the Film Society for opening this door for me- now I'm excited to revisit Kings and Queen. I think I'm finally ready...

Monika at the Red Vic

Ingmar Bergman, a filmmaker I'm often cool to, burst onto the international film scene with this 1952 water-borne "road movie". Now that I've seen it, I honestly think it might be my favorite of his films. It's fun to imagine how it might have played for mid-50s audiences brought in by the lurid sales pitches (at least in the US), because it's so heartbreakingly full as a lively but serious drama, portraying the terrible, beautiful headstrong folly of young love. It's sexy too, of course - how could it not be with Harriet Andersson in the title role?

I Only have Two Eyes: Ben Armington

2008 was another great year for Frisco Bay repertory/revival screenings. I'm so pleased that a number of local cinephiles have agreed to provide a list of their favorite events attended here over the year. An index of participants is found here.

The following list comes from Ben Armington:

2008 was unfortunately for me characterized by an abundance of good rep programming that i slept on for one diabolical reason or another (the Aldrich series at the PFA being a recent tragic example) but happily I did manage to step out for these 7 wonders of the world that made everything OK:

1) A Brighter Summer Day (clay theatre, SFIAAFF '08)

2) Times Square (YBCA)

3) Markéta Lazarová (PFA)

4) Go Go Tales / Profit Motive & The Whispering Wind (kabuki, SFIFF '08)

5) Otto; or Up with Dead People (castro, Frameline '08)

6) The Devils (castro)

7) Bruce Conner tribute (PFA)

I Only Have Two Eyes: Rob Davis

2008 was another great year for Frisco Bay repertory/revival screenings. I'm so pleased that a number of local cinephiles have agreed to provide a list of their favorite events attended here over the year. An index of participants is found here.

The following list comes from Robert Davis, surgeon general of the Daily Plastic:

Muriel (Resnais), PFA, 1/16

In 2008 I managed to revisit a number of old favorites on the big screen, but for this list I'm excluding anything that I'd seen before. Without that rule, my list would certainly include my week's worth of Last Year at Marienbad, projected on the Castro's giant screen. But 2008 was also the year that I finally caught the third in Resnais's masterful trio of films that begins with Hiroshima mon amour, pivots into a spin at Marienbad, and then pops with color in the end. I'd waited a long time to see Muriel, and I almost opted for the DVD, but I'm glad I didn't. Made only a short time after Marienbad, Muriel feels somehow of a different era, but what a joy it was to discover that Resnais continued his experiments with narrative, visual form, and human memory with full and enviable energy. Muriel is first on my list because, of these ten, it's the film I most want to see again.

Los Olvidados (Buñuel), PFA, 3/7 and 3/12

Last year my list included a Buñuel short that I'd never seen, Land Without Bread (which I saw again this year at the PFA), and I wish I could be so lucky as to find an unseen Buñuel film every year in perpetuity so as to sustain a revery, as Buñuel might say. This year, it was Los Olvidados, a refreshingly unsentimental take on children in peril, a delicate subject whose best films convey an outrage at the cruelty without milking the situation for pity. I saw the film a second time mostly to feel my pulse quicken during the dream sequence, when the film goes from faux neo-realism to full-on Buñuelian dream-terror.

In Vanda's Room (Costa), PFA, 3/2

I'd seen Colossal Youth previously but took full advantage of Costa's residency at the PFA to see not only that film again but also each of his other films and shorts (minus his most recent, which screened at NYFF '07), including his meditational portrait of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. He spoke casually and passionately after each screening, and at one point he said that he feels one half of his head is devoted to Straub-Huillet and the other half Tourneur. But he also spent a lot of time talking about Chaplin, a subject dear to my heart, and I'm rather astounded that his comments illuminated both Costa's and Chaplin's films in ways I'd never imagined. But the film that drew me in most completely was In Vanda's Room, Costa's greatest work to date and the perfect balance between captured essence and imposed narrative.

Weekend (Godard), PFA, 2/15

One of the difficulties of trying to see important films projected on celluloid before watching them on DVD is that you're a slave to calendars and screening schedules, so you end up with gaping holes in your viewing. Case in point: Weekend. It's essential Godard, a film I wish I'd seen sooner but one that I can't imagine now without thinking of the uncomfortable audience around me. The centerpiece of the film is an absurdly long tracking shot of automotive carnage, but Godard's jokes, quotations from Lewis Carroll, and light flourishes are tempered by long stretches that seem designed in part to make the viewer squirm, and that design works far better without remote controls and ringing telephones.

Secret Ceremony (Losey), Castro, 4/9

After hearing two of my favorite cinephiles tell me how strange Joseph Losey's films were, I couldn't pass up the double bill of Eva and Secret Ceremony at the Castro. In the first, this Wisconsin-born filmmaker seems to be channeling certain European filmmakers for Jeanne Moreau's black-and-white ennui. But it's the second that knocked me around. Neither Polanski's Rosemary's Baby nor Altman's Three Women is an apt comparison, but both came to mind as I was watching. (A short-haired Mia Farrow is partly to blame.) In the end, all I can do is emit a hearty WTF.

The Terrorizer (Yang), PFA, 3/14

I know this is technically a film festival screening, but I'm making a special exception for the mini-retrospective of the late Edward Yang's films organized by the SFIAAFF. I'd seen Yi-Yi before and this year found that A Brighter Summer Day lived up to advance word as a similarly sprawling drama. But I was wholly unprepared for the postmodern goodness that is The Terrorizer, which demonstrates that a dense and enigmatic stillness can be more suspenseful than fast cuts and a thumping soundtrack. And it reveals that "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" has affected more than one Taiwanese filmmaker.

Benny's Video (Haneke), Roxie, 3/30

Coincident with the release of Haneke's intriguing Funny Games remake, the Roxie showed both the Austrian original and an earlier film, Benny's Video, which -- I can see in retrospect -- acts as a kind of roadmap to Haneke's later films and adds yet another cycle to an oeuvre of iteration.

The Immortal Story (Welles), PFA, 4/11

If 2008 filled a hole in my movie watching bigger than Godard's Weekend, it had to be The Magnificent Ambersons, which screened as part of the extensive Welles series at the PFA. It was wonderful as expected, and the series gave me the chance to re-watch a few of my faves, notably The Trial. But, persuaded as I am by Jonathan Rosenbaum's argument that Welles continued to be a vibrant artist throughout his life despite his commercial failure, the contrarian in me has chosen The Immortal Story for this list, a soft, lush work in gauzy color that also, coincidentally, stars Jeanne Moreau. It's an hour-long story about storytelling, brief and beautiful, quiet as crushed velvet.

Light Work Mood Disorder (Reeves), Artist's Television Access, 3/15

Jennifer Reeves came to town for a few days to show some of her experimental films, including clips of a work in progress called When it Was Blue, which is now showing up on several year-end lists. But I particularly love the films that simply must be seen live because they involve multiple projectors, multiple screens, and a filmmaker who syncs them up manually, a bit differently every time. Light Work Mood Disorder is made out of celluloid and light, and it's the kind of work that will disappear along with 16mm film once digital video takes over the world. Cherish it while you can.

Frownland (Bronstein), Roxie, 2/16

Debut films don't get any more committed than this. Ronald Bronstein's characters seem observed rather than created, which makes them -- and Bronstein's uncomfortably close vantage point -- deeply unsettling. But stepping away from the visceral discomfort of the film, I kept thinking about the remarkable structure of people in pairs. The put-upon in one pair is doing the putting in another, the sophisticate in one room is the rube in another. Circumstances shift, and Bronstein drifts away from what seems to be the film's spine long enough to find the differences. It's the only new film in my list, but I'm including it because its release was so tiny no one was sure which best-of lists it was eligible for, and because I almost included it in my favorite new films of the year.

I Only have Two Eyes: Michael Guillén

2008 was another great year for Frisco Bay repertory/revival screenings. I'm so pleased that a number of local cinephiles have agreed to provide a list of their favorite events attended here over the year. An index of participants is found here.

The following list comes from Michael Guillén, schoolmaster of the Evening Class:

The Pacific Film Archive has been especially kind to me this year. PFA's curatorial staff—Susan Oxtoby (Senior Film Curator), Kathy Geritz (Film Curator), Steve Seid (Video Curator)—and both Shelley Diekman (PFA publicist) and Jonathan Knapp (publicity coordinator) have gone out of their way to grant me entry to PFA's programming, as well as providing access to interview visiting talent. My heartfelt thanks to the PFA team! I look forward to interacting with them further in 2009.

Responding to filmbud Brian Darr's request for my 10 favorite repertory screenings in 2008, I've decided instead to offer my 10 favorite retrospectives at PFA.

1. As part of their "Closely Watched Films" series, PFA invited Terence Davies to introduce several of his films and to finesse Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) with a shot-by-shot analysis. Within this series, I was absolutely ravished by The Long Day Closes (1992), which left me dumbstruck with emotion afterwards; something, I assure you, that rarely happens. What a delight to listen to his wry sentiments.

2. The 400 Blows (1959) has long been one of my favorite films. I have watched it countless times on DVD and television; but, never had the chance to see it projected until PFA offered "Jean-Pierre Léaud: The New Wave and After." The screening was heightened by an introduction by François Truffaut's daughter Laura. The series not only provided the chance to review Truffaut's Antoine Doinel cycle, but introduced me to Léaud's collaborations with Jean-Luc Godard, namely La Chinoise (1967)—in a sparkling new print!—Masculine Feminine (1966), and Weekend (1967), as well as Jean-Pierre's performance in Jean Eustache's mindblowing The Mother and the Whore (1973).

3. As part of their "Readings on Cinema" series, PFA invited author Daisuke Miyao to introduce three films of transnational silent star Sessue Hayakawa: The Cheat (1915), Forbidden Paths (1917), and The Devil's Claim (1920). What a tremendous opportunity, accentuated by Judith Rosenberg's masterful piano accompaniment and an on-campus weekend symposium— "Border Crossings: Rethinking Silent Cinema"—wherein various film historians considered the movement of early cinema across national boundaries, initiating cultural traffic that re-envisioned race, gender, nation, empire, and cinema itself.

4. "Still Lives: The Films of Pedro Costa" was the first time I watched absolutely every single film in a retrospective. I wanted to set up a cot and a hot plate in the lobby! O Sangue (1989), Down to Earth (1994), Ossos (1997), Sicilia! (1999), In Vanda's Room (2000), Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001), Colossal Youth (2006), all introduced by Pedro Costa in residency. His aesthetics left an indelible imprint on my cinephilic sensibility and having the chance to interview him was one of the highlights of the 2008.

5. Commemorating the spirit of May 1968, "The Clash of '68" afforded the opportunity to familiarize myself with Bernardo Bertolucci's Before the Revolution (1964), Chris Marker's A Grin Without A Cat (1977/1988), Antonio Isordia's 1973 (2005), and Nagisa Oshima's The Man Who Left His Will on Film (1970). I was warmed by revolutionary fires.

6. "Hong Kong Nocturne" finally exposed me to the films of Johnnie To: The Mission (1999), Fulltime Killer (2001), Running on Karma (2003), Election (2005), Triad Election (2006), Exiled (2006) and Mad Detective (2007). Ah, the bliss of the bullet ballet!

7. My friendship with Matthew Kennedy was sparked by his involvement with "Joan Blondell: The Fizz on the Soda", where I caught Joan in Blonde Crazy (1931), Footlight Parade (1933), the astounding Nightmare Alley (1947) and Lizzie (1957). What a consummate appreciation of a very fine actress.

8. "Hecho Por México: The Films of Gabriel Figueroa" allowed me to revisit some of my favorite Mexican cinema: Julio Bracho's The Saint That Forged A Country (1942) and A New Dawn (1943); Emilio "El Indio" Fernández's Enamorada (1946) with María Félix at her feistiest and Victims of Sin (1950) with Ninón Sevilla at her feistiest; Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados (1950) and Nazarín (1958); and Roberto Gavaldón's Days of Autumn (1962) and Macario (1963); all in new traveling prints struck by Mexico's Filmoteca de La Unam.

9. Pulp has never been pounded to such perfection as in the David Goodis stories adapted to the screen and presented in "Streets of No Return": Delmer Daves' Dark Passage (1947), Vincent Sherman's The Unfaithful (1947), François Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player (1960), Jacques Tourneur's Nightfall (1957), and Paul Wendkos' The Burglar (1957). As if the films in themselves weren't enough, PFA's audiences were treated to fascinating introductory lectures by Barry Gifford, Mike White and my favorite "noirchaeologist" Eddie Muller.

10. Finally, practicing my French I indulged in the Jean-Luc Godard "Movie Love in the Sixties" retrospective, which built nicely upon the earlier Jean-Pierre Léaud retrospective. Here I caught Godard's A Woman Is A Woman (1961), Vivre sa vie (1962), Contempt (1964), and Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1966).

Without question, 2008 is the year I finally realized that PFA's creative retrospectives are the best film school in which a cineaste can be enrolled. I look forward to next semester!

I Only Have Two Eyes: Adam Hartzell

2008 was another great year for Frisco Bay repertory/revival screenings. I'm so pleased that a number of local cinephiles have agreed to provide a list of their favorite events attended here over the year. An index of participants is found here.

The following list comes from
Adam Hartzell, contributer to, Hell on Frisco Bay and elsewhere:

1) ZIDANE: A 21st CENTURY PORTRAIT (Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, 2006, France/Iceland) February 7th at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. I missed this during its first sold-out run at the YBCA the previous year, so when I saw it was coming again, I took a bunch of fellow hooligans from work to check it out (with another packed crowd) and I was awestruck. Yes, it fell flat on some of my co-workers, and another actually felt his admiration for Zidane diminish from watching the film. ('Look at how much time he spent just dragging his ass around?!') But I was grinning for joy throughout and long after.

2) I WAS BORN, BUT . . . (Ozu Yasujiro, 1932, Japan) on February 29th at the California Theatre in San Jose. My first (and so far, only) trip to the beautiful California Theatre in San Jose was to watch this film along with Brian and my girlfriend (now wife). Ozu is always a pleasure, but silent Ozu with a Wurlitzer (Jim Riggs at the keys and foot pumps) is heavenly.

3) NO BORDERS, NO LIMITS: 1960s NIKKATSU ACTION CINEMA at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in April. This retrospective has a special meaning to me because I was in Udine, Italy in 2005 at the Far East Film Festival where Mark Schilling curated the original series from which this retrospective drew. This enabled me to catch two I’d missed the first time around, A COLT IS MY PASSPORT (Nomura Takashi, 1967, Japan) and ROUGHNECK (Hasebe Yasuharu, 1969, Japan). I hope the SF Film Noir festival gives me another chance some day to revisit these fascinating takes on the gangster lean yet again.

4) CINEMA JAPAN: A WREATH FOR MADAME KAWAKITA at Pacific Film Archives in November and December. I have been wanting to see Oshima Nagisa’s THE CEREMONY (1971, Japan) and BOY (1969, Japan) ever since I moved to the Bay Area and was further introduced to his work through a screening of IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES (1976, Japan) at the old Pacific Film Archives screening room in the Berkeley Art Museum. (Maureen Turim’s book THE FILMS OF OSHIMA NAGISA: IMAGES OF A JAPANESE ICONOCLAST and Oshima’s own collection CINEMA, CENSORSHIP, AND THE STATE: THE WRITINGS OF NAGISA OSHIMA helped fuel that interest too.) I knew an Oshima retrospective was touring, but the Bay Area wasn’t scheduled to host the retrospective until the summer of 2009. Well, summer came early and I wasn’t disappointed. Plus, the series introduced me to some more Ichikawa Kon, checking A FULL-UP TRAIN (1957, Japan) and appreciating the satire of stubborn positive thinking.

5) MON ONCLE ANTOINE (Claue Jutra 1971, Canada) as part of Québec Film Week at The Opera Plaza in December. We would learn this was the first ever film festival devoted to the films of Québec in the U.S. A sad fact, but I’m just glad this rare print was included in an otherwise contemporary series. I’d seen it on DVD before, but nothing beats seeing it on screen, regardless of the state of the print. Films better allow stories to envelop you with a texture I have yet to find from DVDs, which is why I, like Brian and the other folks he called upon here, appreciate the repertory houses and the first-run theatres that occasionally take a second look at films that flashed from the past.

PostScript – I know Brian only wanted us to include local SF screenings, but if he can humor me for one international shoutout. If you ever find yourself in Dunedin, New Zealand, home of Straitjacket Fits, The Chills, The Clean, and several other great Flying Nun label bands, first, 'Good on ya for making it there!' Second, check out The Film Archive Annex at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. It’s a treasure trove of NZ films you can’t get easy access to. I caught New Zealand’s first Maori/Pakeha romance set to film BROKEN BARRIER (Roger Mirams and John Shea, 1952) during my last rainy day in Dunedin’s downtown octagon (a square was apparently not good enough for them) and am wishing I’d taken greater advantages of the stock of tapes they had available for everyone, free of charge.

I Only Have Two Eyes: Michael Hawley

2008 was another great year for Frisco Bay repertory/revival screenings. I'm so pleased that a number of local cinephiles have agreed to provide a list of their favorite events attended here over the year. An index of participants is found here.

The following list comes from Michael Hawley, operator of film-415:

Of the 250-some films I saw in a public setting this year, over 50 were revival/repertory screenings – a testament to the Bay Area's passion for the history of cinema. A million thanks go out to the Pacific Film Archive, Castro Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SF MOMA and all the individual festivals who were willing to dig up the past. For me, these were the most memorable:


Distant Voices, Still Lives: Shot by Shot (PFA, Terrence Davies in person, finger ready on the remote control pause button, offering a piquant running commentary to his 1988 classic)

Bones and In Vanda's Room (PFA, Still Lives: The Films of Pedro Costa, a rare opportunity to see parts one and two of The Wanda Trilogy, the films which preceded 2006's astonishing Colossal Youth, with the director in person.)

The Patsy (Castro Theater, the SF Silent Film Festival closed its red-letter 2008 edition with this screamingly funny 1928 Marion Davies/Marie Dressler comedy)

The Maelstrom: A Family Chronicle and The Danube Exodus (Castro Theater, this year the SF Jewish Film Festival gave its Freedom of Expression Award to Péter Forgács, a Hungarian director who's made a career of transforming the forgotten photographs, diaries and home movies of European Jews into a singular form of documentary filmmaking. These films were from 1997 and 1998 respectively).

The Exiles (Castro Theater, Kent MacKenzie's acclaimed 1961 docu-drama depicts 24 hours in the lives of a group of urban-Los Angeles Native Americans. A memorial to an L.A. that no longer exists, featuring perhaps the most beautiful nocturnal B&W cinematography I've ever seen.

Six in Paris (Landmark's Clay Theater, a highlight of the SF Film Society's French Cinema Now series; the surprise of this 1965 omnibus was that my three favorite segments were by directors I was previously unfamiliar with: Jean Douchet, Jean-Daniel Pollet and Jean Rouch.)

Tractor Drivers and Carnival Night (PFA, Envisioning Russia: A Century of Filmmaking, what could be more delightful than an evening of communist musicals!)

Trapeze (Castro Theater, Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster and Gina Lollobrigida, all of whom never looked more beautiful than they did in 1956, woo and wage war under a Parisian bigtop; in Cinemascope with Color-by-Deluxe.)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Castro Theater, Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 silent classic as it's rarely seen…with a 200-member orchestra and chorus performing Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light).

Blue (SF MOMA, Derek Jarman's final feature, in which there's nothing to watch but an unchanging, solid blue screen, was the perfect film to see while recovering from the flu. I simply laid on the floor of the Phyllis Wattis Theater, closed my eyes, and listened intently to Jarman's sound collage of music, ambient sounds and the director's own caustic, poetic discourse on the indignity of going blind from AIDS.)

And here are a few other revivals worth mentioning: Gun Crazy and Jeopardy at Noir City. The Velvet Hustler, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and Day of Wrath at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Last Year at Marienbad and The Wild Bunch at the Castro. Night of the Hunter and Victims of Sin at the PFA. If… at SF MOMA. The Adventures of Prince Achmed at the SF Silent Film Festival.

cross-post from film-415.