Saturday, April 30, 2011

SFIFF54 Day 10: World On A Wire

The 54nd San Francisco International Film Festival is in its final week. It runs through May 5th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting a recommendation and capsule review of a film in the festival.

World On A Wire (WEST GERMANY: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973)

playing: at 2:00 PM this afternoon at the Pacific Film Archive, with no further screenings during the festival.
distribution: Janus Films is touring a revival of this film in advance of an eventual (as yet unannounced) Criterion DVD release. The Roxie Cinema has booked the 35mm print to screen during the week of July 29-August 4th.

One of the hot discussion topics amongst certain cinephiles at this year's SFIFF is, why did the festival decide to show Fassbinder's World On A Wire at the Kabuki last Saturday in a digital projection, when the Pacific Film Archive screening of it this afternoon is coming from a new 35mm print? It's true that the Kabuki is not equipped to do changeover 35mm projection (its platter system is considered acceptable for most festival prints of new films, but not for archival or certain other flim prints.) But I understand that the New People/VIZ Cinema house could have been another San Francisco venue option, as it's equipped for changeover, and has approximately as many seats as the Kabuki's House 3, where World on a Wire screened. When introducing the screening there, SFIFF director of Programming Rachel Rosen touted the clarity of the digital "print", and reminded that though Fassbinder shot on film, this particular work was originally seen most frequently on television anyway. The image did look fine, for a digital projection, but I still missed the certain warmth of light that only a projected film image can provide, at least according to my video viewing experience up to now.

Regardless, the PFA is expected to show a 35mm print this afternoon; it's in fact the only festival title touted as such in the Berkeley venue's printed calendar. Though the PFA typically tries to show films in as close as possible to the format they were originally made (flim on film, video on video) during SFIFF it's at the mercy of the ever-shifting vagaries of print traffic, which is why last Monday a Useful Life was screened there on a video format, much to the articulately-expressed chagrin of Carl Martin. I've been assured by the festival's hard-working print traffic manager Jesse Dubus that A Useful Life will screen at the Kabuki today in 35mm, unlike its two screenings earlier in the festival. For a real education in the quality of film vs. video image, a viewer of a Useful Life or World On A Wire on video last weekend could take a second look, on film, today.

World On A Wire is a good enough film to deserve a second look, regardless of format. A science-fiction take on the computer revolution that, made in 1973, prefigured the Matrix and Inception by decades, it's a typically imagistic Fassbinder work and truly a forgotten (if not by everyone, thankfully) classic in the prolific auteur's oeuvre. Dennis Harvey has recently written an insightful review, but let me chime in with a couple observations. The music is superb; Gottfried Hüngsberg's original compositions make industrial noise artists of the late seventies like Throbbing Gristle seem just a bit less ahead of the curve (I say this as a big fan of TG), and the employment of a Strauss waltz in a futuristic film made only 5 years after the release of Kubrick's 2001 takes a certain kind of daring- and it fits here equally well, if differently. Without spoiling anything, I'd also point out that the final scene of the film, though interpreted many ways in the places I've looked or listened, seems to me to hold a clue to understanding the rest of the film in the way its look and even the performance styles contained within it, contrast so sharply against the other 3+ hours. Needless to say, this is a work that grows more and more fascinating with every successive reel.

SFIFF54 Day 10
Another option: Dog Day Afternoon (USA: Sidney Lumet, 1975) Easily my favorite of Sidney Lumet's films, Dog Day Afternoon was what I first thought of when regretting the passing of the director earlier this month. But today's screening is not a memorial tribute, but a celebration of the life and work of its screenwriter Frank Pierson, who also wrote the scripts for Cat Ballou, Cool Hand Luke and many other successful Hollywood pictures. Though Dog Day Afternoon will be shown on a video format rather than its native 35mm, it's a strong enough picture to survive the conversion, and with the writer on hand this promises to be an insightful afternoon.

Non-SFIFF-option for today: MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS comes to the Red Vic as a benefit to keep it open. At 7:30 PM Head MANiAC Jesse Hawthorne Ficks unspools a full program of 35mm trailers, then at 9:00 he auctions off rare film memorabilia items from his personal collection, and at 9:45 he screens a secret title from the 1970s, never before released on any home video format I can think of. And in the afternoon, the theatre hosts a poster sale. All for the extremely good cause of saving the only co-operatively owned and run repertory cinema on the West Coast.


  1. Speaking of the music, the entire theatre remained glued to the seats until the very last chord of the Fleetwood Mac '69 composition, 'Albatross', during end credits at the PFA. Looking forward to watching it again at the Roxie in July. Susan Oxtoby commented during the introduction that PFA is currently "researching" a Fassbinder program where they plan to re-screen this film in the larger context of his work.

  2. Thanks for the report on the PFA screening, Mohit. The prospect of a Fassbinder series at the PFA is positively thrilling.

    I'm glad, and not surprised, that "Albatross" was so transfixing to the PFA attendees.