Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Twenty Years South

Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive has a new calendar out, full of goodies. Oakland's Paramount has plans to show Wait Until Dark, The General and Captain Blood in March. San Rafael is getting a rare Jan Troell retrospective February 27-March 6. Even Sepastapol has its annual documentary festival March 5-7. And here in Frisco we've got a new SF Cinematheque season underway as well as festival after festival after festival: first Noise Pop, then German Gems, then the Disposable Film Festival, and then my own favorite festival of the season, the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival, which has been amply previewed by Michael Hawley. Before you know it, the San Francisco International Film Festival will be around the corner; Frisco Bay's most prominent film festival has already begun announcing festival events, namely the 1916 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with Stephen Merritt, Daniel Handler & David Hegarty providing musical accompaniment, the presentation of the Kanbar screenwriting award (by John Waters!) to James Schamus, best known for his collaborations with Ang Lee; their film Ride With the Devil, will screen May 1st.

Where does this leave the South Bay? Well, the SFIAAFF does run one weekend of films in San Jose, at the Camera 12. And the Stanford Theatre is still in the first week of a diverse Akira Kurosawa retrospective, including some of his most famous as well as some of his most obscure films, samurai-centered and otherwise. The Seven Samurai plays through Friday, so you haven't missed any of the series (which ends March 30 with Ran) yet.

But you probably live under a rock, or else north of the southernmost BART stops, not to realize that the South Bay's biggest film festival of the year, the Cinequest Film Festival, begins its 20th anniversary program tonight with a screening of international co-production the Good Heart starring Brian Cox. Dennis Harvey of sf360 has written an overview of potential festival highlights, but let me add my own voice to the conversation, even if there's a good deal of overlap between his picks and mine.

Though intriguing films like Bong Joon-ho's Mother and Ilisa Barbsh & Lucien Castaing-Taylor's documentary Sweetgrass are promised to screen in Landmark Theatres around Frisco Bay, the majority of Cinequest films are not guaranteed to play anywhere else locally. That includes what must be the must-see of the festival, French master Alain Resnais's latest Wild Grass scheduled for a single screening on March 4th; though it has a distributor, a local theatrical release date has not been set yet. Babnik, the third feature from Alejandro Adams to play Cinequest in as many years is another important draw for those of us who've been intrigued to see what the maker of Around The Bay and Canary has in store next.

I've seen three of the films playing already. The two silent films Dennis James is slated to accompany behind the California Theatre organ are both seen far too infrequently. Erich Von Stroheim's the Merry Widow does not match his masterpiece Greed in either ambition or impact, but any of Stroheim's films are of serious interest to cinephiles. Ernst Lubitsch's the Student Prince of Old Heidelberg, on the other hand, may just be his greatest (and most delightful) silent film, as anyone who saw it open the 2007 San Francisco Silent Film Festival might be inclined to agree.

I've also seen, on a screener DVD, one of the new films in the lineup, with a title inspired by Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit. If you're sick and tired of the hip but nowheredly-mobile characters glorified by a certain movement of no-star, low-budget filmmaking that peaked in critical attention a couple ago (yes, that one that rhymes with 'Dumbledore') you may be in the target audience for Jarrod Whaley's Hell Is Other People (fully reviewed by Richard van Busack). There's no way around it: Whaley has created in underground psychotherapist Morty Burnett one of the most pathetic, non-glorified, unappealing characters I've seen on a screen in quite a while. He's likely to truly test an audience's sense of empathy. Though Hell Is Other People doesn't bear enough technical dissimilarity to prevent some observers from distinguishing it from the genre-that-must-not-be-named, those who've been paying close attention might just agree that Whaley has launched a counter-movement of his own, that now just needs a catchy name to spread like wildfire. So then, what rhymes with 'Voldemort'?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Film Preservation Mob

The past week's big event in the blogosphere has been For The Love of Film: the Film Preservation Blog-A-Thon. It's not been "just" another Blog-a-thon devoted to a single film, filmmaker, genre or film subject, but a celebration of archivists and historians who have kept our cinema heritage alive and in many cases brought it into the light after long periods of darkness. The genius of the two co-hosts, Farran Nehme, a.k.a. the Self-Styled Siren and Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy On Films, has been to turn hordes of opinionated chroniclers into crowdsourced fundraisers for the National Film Preservation Foundation, whose offices are located here in Frisco, right on Market Street. Please donate to this terrific cause. If you're unsure of its worthiness, then reading the great number of arguments in favor found at one of the Blog-a-thon hubs ought to set you straight. To sweeten the deal, four random donors will be awarded one of the DVD sets the NFPF has produced in the past few years; I've delved into both collections myself and would love to have either in my personal library as reference copies for dozens of films that I've had the pleasure of watching in cinemas (such as The Godless Girl and Hamfat Asar), and/or that I hope to view in that manner one day (such as Redskin and Fake Fruit Factory).

I find that a common misconception among the general public regarding film preservation is that transferring the information in a film print to a digital storage device such as a DVD is the same thing as preserving it. It's a tough myth to shatter in a world where computers are supposed to solve all our problems. My fellow San Francisco Silent Film Festival researcher Rob Byrne (who you can follow on twitter) wrote in a 2008 essay on film preservation called Amazing Tales From The Archives (one can read the full text here):

A properly stored film printed on modern stock can last 100 years and more, while retaining far higher fidelity than a digitized copy. In contrast, over the past 20 years video formats have changed multiple times, leaving behind obsolete equipment and inaccessible media. So while digital reproduction is an obvious choice for home viewing and posibly for public exhibition, it is not the solution for preservation.
You may have read, elsewhere in the blog-a-thon, or somewhere else entirely, that the last step in the preservation process is presentation. Which is to say that the effort that goes into finding elements, researching proper technical specifications, and making photochemical or digital "fixes" to the materials at hand (if it's not too far decayed, that is) is not spent simply for a restored film to sit pristine in a vault somewhere, but to be accessible to future audiences. Whether that means striking exhibition prints for festivals, museums and archives, and the remaining repertory theatres to show, or simply making a DVD available, it's an integral piece of film preservation even if it's not equivalent to it. Interestingly, a film called Cry Danger has closed the circuit, making presentation the first step in preservation as well as the last.

At Noir City 8, last month's festival of film noir here at Frisco's jewel of a presentation venue, the Castro Theatre, the audience was reminded in very palpable ways of the relationship between archives and the ideal presentation of both the "classics" and of little-known gems. The first Saturday night's double bill of films written by William Bowers and directed by Robert Parrish could be exhibit 'A'. The first film was the dark and witty Cry Danger, a film which had shown in 16mm prints at previous Noir City festivals, but which was finally given the full restoration treatment, paid for by the proceeds from last year's Noir City. Festival director Eddie Muller goes into detail on this in his own contribution to this week's blog-a-thon. The audience loved seeing the film in its 35mm glory, and hearing Muller pry stories about the making of the film from Richard Erdman after the screening. And when the festival was over and the votes were tallied from the festival passholders to bestow this year's noir lineup with Noir City's own "Roscoe Awards", Cry Danger did pretty well, picking up nominations for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Erdman).

Cry Danger's double-bill-mate, the Mob, didn't fare so well in the "Roscoes" to my disappointment and surprise. I thought Broderick Crawford gave one of the festival's most memorable and well-judged performances as a New York City cop forced to go undercover as a transplant from New Orleans, going so far as to quaff the (according to Bowers' script, at any rate) Big Easy barstool signature, white wine and beer, in order to get inside the crooked crevices of the longshoreman milieu controlled by Ernest Borgnine's gang- or is it Borgnine's gang after all? Muller announced before the film unspooled (boasting that more tickets had been sold to that show than to Avatar in Frisco that evening- and this was when the James Cameron film was still weeks away from losing its #1 slot on the national box-office charts) that the 35mm print of the Mob was shipped fresh from the lab. It looked it. The deep deep blackness of the screen contrasted with the bright white lights shining through the emulsion with as much clarity as I've ever seen in a black-and-white film print. It must have augmented the experience that I was sitting in the balcony just under the projector, which traced the motion of a vehicle's headlamps from the back of the giant theatre to the screen in front of us with distinct beams stretching over my head. It was an unexpected 3-D effect without the need for special glasses or a $4 surcharge!

Other Noir City screenings that week highlighted other connections between preservation and presentation. According to the Czar of Noir, the rarely-seen Robert Siodmak film Deported was screened as much as a way of checking the quality of the only known print, as for its entertainment or historical value. "Bad Girls Night" was an excuse for Muller to briefly interview Grover Crisp of Sony Pictures on how he got into archiving, and what it's like to be involved with keeping the legacy of one of the classic Hollywood studios (in this case Columbia) alive in the modern era. The audience was treated to two delerious programmers featuring Cleo Moore; I think I'm one of the few in the house that liked the low-budget One Girl's Confession by Hugo Haas more than Women's Prison, which had a great cast including Ida Lupino but less authorial style than the Haas picture. Both films have in the weeks since the festival been released on a pair of two-disc DVD sets along with favorites from Noir City festivals past (Night Editor, the Glass Wall) and hopefully future (Two of a Kind?)

Another particularly intriguing restoration angle was provided by the Noir City Sentinal Annual #2, a collection of articles and images bound in a handsome volume and available at the festival as well as online. I had to buy myself a copy, not only for the multiple articles on the great director André de Toth, whose Pitfall and Slattery's Hurricane were highlights of my festival week (though the latter film doesn't really gel its spectacular scenes together into something unified, for reasons well-explained in one of the aforementioned articles), but also for Eddie Muller's interview with Paula Felix-Didier and Fernando Peña, the Argentinean film historians who were instrumental in bringing the near-complete cut of Fritz Lang's Metropolis into the global view. His interview illuminates aspects of this "amazing tale from the archives" that I have not seen stressed in media reports on this watershed restoration elsewhere. And I'm thrilled that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has announced its plan to bring the "new" Metropolis to the Castro Theatre this coming July, with the Alloy Orchestra providing a musical score updating the version that launched the ensemble's silent film-scoring career in 1991.

One of the most refreshing aspects of Noir City is its complete lack of corporate sponsorship- although the festival partners with other non-profit groups like the fledgling San Francisco Film Museum, which set up camp on the mezzanine one evening to take mug shots (including mine!) of the masses. It's a festival that survives, nay thrives on the support of its donors, its volunteers, its connections in the preservation community, and of course on its loyal audiences. Restoring Cry Danger was just the beginning- actually it wasn't the beginning, as funds from Noir City helped restore the print of the Prowler that will be playing the Joseph Losey series that's a centerpiece of the March-April Pacific Film Archive calendar. But as long as audiences support this festival and its satellites around the country (currently in Seattle) it will continue its preservation mission one film at a time. Next up for the Cry Danger treatment, according to Eddie Muller's closing-night sign off? Too Late For Tears.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks Has Two Eyes

Last month I compiled a set of sixteen lists from Frisco Bay film bloggers and enthusiasts of their favorite repertory screenings of 2009. As proud I am of the thoughtfulness of the taste-diverse participants, not everyone I invited to participate was able to do so before my deadline. Not long ago I received a belated submission from a film programmer who first made an impression on me nine years ago when he was helping to curate and introduce Hong Kong and other Asian obscurities and classics at the 4 Star Theatre. Now he's a periodic fixture at the Castro Theatre with his MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS series, which takes over for two days this Friday and Saturday for a 7-film John Hughes tribute.

I'm honored to present his selections for the "I Only Have Two Eyes 2009" project, which is indexed here.

MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS curator Jesse Hawthorne Ficks' Favorite Bay Area Rep Screenings of 2009.

5. Dancer Double Feature of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's THE RED SHOES (1948) at the SFMoMA followed by a mad dash to the Yerba Buena Center to see Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA (1977).

4. The Castro Theatre played Andrei Konchalovsky's RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985), a film based on an Akira Kurosawa screenplay, produced by Menahem Golan & Yoram Globus of Cannon Films containing Jon Voight, Eric Roberts & Rebecca De Mornay. Needless to say, minds were melted!

3. The Film Society's San Francisco International Film Festival screened a newly struck print of Francis Ford Coppola's mesmerizing THE RAIN PEOPLE (1969) followed by a round table with his friends of family: George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Walter Murch.

2. Frameline's San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival screened a newly restored version of Curt McDowell's 152 minute mumble(hard)core extravaganza THUNDERCRACK! culminating with a pin proving you made it through the whole thing!

1. The Yerba Buena Center in celebration of 20 years of Strand Releasing premiered Johan Renck's totally overlooked DOWNLOADING NANCY (2008); One of the most disturbing and fully realized films of the Y2K decade. Fans of Maria Bello, chronic dissatisfaction and cinematographer Christopher Doyle... SEEK THIS FILM OUT!!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Adam Hartzell on Three Canadian Indies

Film festival season has started again here in Frisco. Last week I spent the majority of my evenings at Noir City, taking in a personal-best fifteen of the twenty-four films programmed. I've been letting a wrap-up piece slowly broil, but in the meantime I highly recommend the coverage of the festival by Max Goldberg, Michael Guillén, and the indefatigable Odienator, who wrote stimulating reviews of nearly every film in the program for the newly-redesigned House Next Door blog, and is now posting daily Black History Mumf entries at Big Media Vandalism. Makes me feel like a slacker when it comes to writing...

Luckily I have a compatriot here at Hell On Frisco Bay who helps me pick up the slack. As my life gets busier in February, I'm not likely to be able to see (much less write about) the films programmed at the festivals currently underway: the Ocean Film Festival, the African Film Festival, or the Mostly British Film Festival and IndieFest, both of which begin tonight. Reliably, Adam Hartzell has stepped into the breach, previewing three Canadian films programmed at the latter event this week and next. Here's Adam:

This year's SF IndieFest provides the opportunity to watch three films from a country's cinema often kept from us in the States, Canada. And whether planned or not, they've spread the Canadiana out across three different provinces - Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec.

Manitoba's contribution is Zooey & Adam (Dir. Sean Garrity). The film begins pleasantly enough, but quickly takes a horrifying turn, well-executed in its direction to disturb. In order to avoid giving this major plot point and its impact away, let me say that the scene takes place in the dark, reminding me of a comment made by Iranian director Jafir Panahi. He said he did not feel confident choreographing violence, choosing in The Circle to have the violence take place behind a closed door, making the scene all the more frightening because of its visible absence. Garrity does the same thing here by not showing us exactly what's happening as the characters scream in horror at a scene taking place in only our own minds. An interesting story follows about how a couple tries to stay together after the trauma.
The film's impact is limited by the jaunty Indie editing style of scenes spliced together from different cuts. I don't know if there is a term for this particular editing style, but here's an example of what I'm talking about. We have the characters in a heated argument and then we quickly jump to them in silence and notice that their posture and position within the same room is noticeably different from before the cut. At one point, the heated argument jumps to them quickly resolving their differences. This disjointed editing style can sometimes add to a film, but here the scenes occasionally feel as if Garrity is making do with what he has, something low-budget directors have to learn to handle expertly. In spite of this and some other poorly orchestrated scenes, the film still carries one through an anguishing, fairly compelling story.
Ontario's offering primarily takes place in a small town well outside of Toronto. (Toronto’s main signification in the film is a bird's eye shot of two of the characters near a Bay Street sign, Bay Street being Canada's Wall Street.) The music throughout Point Traverse (Dir. Albert Shin) and the gorgeous images of landscapes provide nice meditative breaks. As for the story, we follow three childhood friends as they establish ennui in young adulthood. One manages a fast food chicken joint. One sleepwalks from street life to a janitorial job to a relationship with a Russian immigrant escaping a life best left behind as well. And the a third, a character Shin decided not to develop as fully, is hinted to be the man-child of the bunch. When the story drags, the music and landscape images make up for what‘s otherwise not working. When the story works, it’s a nice meditation on young adulthood in a nowhere town, trying to find somewhere to go amidst the nowhere.
As usual when we talk about Canadian cinema, the best of the bunch comes from Quebec. West of Pluto is directed by Myriam Verreault and Henry Bernadet and although it includes the clichéd 'loss of virginity as bad experience' trope of the more serious teen films, the rest of this narrative is truly a breath of fresh, francophonic air. It begins with a montage of the teens we will spend the rest of the film with giving class speeches about their passions. (One of the characters gives his passion-speech about, of all things, peanut butter, which foreshadows that this kid lacks direction.) With such a wide cast of characters, the concise development is fairly well accomplished. The title comes from the fact that these kids live in a suburb where several streets are named after planets and the fact that one student’s passion is for Pluto. Interspersed throughout the narrative is footage of NASA preparing for the launch of a rocket to survey Pluto, launched only a few months before Pluto would lose its planet status. (With the dropping of Pluto, if you’re wondering what does My Very Educated Mother Just Serve Us Now, a quick Google search suggests it turns out she‘s no longer serving nine pizzas, but just 'Nachos'.) The story is simple and progresses to a teenage party gone wrong. But outside of the loss-of-virginity cliché mentioned earlier, the many ways in which this party goes wrong don‘t leave me feeling as if I've attended a party (or after-party) like this one before. Along with the French spoken, an animated debate on Quebec sovereignty and a late night munchies satiation at a poutine stand keep this film marked as clearly from Quebec. But the stories of youthful identity-searching, with authentic, mean-spirited actions tempering any overly romantic John Hughesian themes, allows for universals of youth to be taken from a clearly Canadian film.