Friday, July 1, 2011

Does Netflix Cause Cancer?

Short answer: probably not. Not any more than cellphones, power lines, microwave ovens, and the other accoutrements of the modern world, anyhow. But that heading got your attention, didn't it? Remember when your mother told you that sitting too close the television screen would wreck your eyesight or worse? She was probably wrong too, but her overall point that getting too transfixed by home appliances may be unhealthy for us (intellectually and emotionally, if not physically) still has validity.

Don't get me wrong- it's impossible to deny the utility and convenience of home delivery systems for our entertainment, and though I haven't personally embraced streaming or downloading video, I do watch DVDs with some frequency. However, I hope I never get so habituated to doing so that I no longer feel like going out to see a movie playing on a shared screen.

One argument made by some of the proponents of digital delivery systems in favor of traditional 35mm film distribution has been the environmental benefits of moving away from the chemical processes required to make film prints, and the necessity to ship heavy film cans long distances. These benefits are hard to dispute, but the idea that technology is bringing us to some sort of entertainment eco-topia is even harder to swallow. Can we remove the desire to use new technologies to watch movies from the factors encouraging us to buy endless personal computers, media players, and screens, all subject to the little tyrannies of planned obsolescence? Would the impoverished peasants living and laboring in the so-called "e-waste villages" where they come into constant contact with the toxic components of discarded electronic devices, shipped from overseas, consider the decrease in photochemically-based film delivery an environmental boon? I think not. From a certain point of view, the popularity of Netflix, whose streaming services are often said to make up 30% of this country's internet traffic during peak periods (though that figure's been contested), indeed may contribute to increased cancer rates in other countries.

Accepting that we live in an age of ever-expanding personal screens (and typing this on my computer, it would be the height of hypocrisy for me to pretend I don't accept it, albeit with reservations) doesn't necessarily mean that we should celebrate when traditional film distribution methods disappear. I'm a little heartsick that the greenest cinema in town is almost certainly going to close before the end of the month. Barring some kind of deus ex machina intervention by a well-funded angel, the Red Vic Movie House, which has solar panels on its roof and sells its popcorn and drinks in reusable bowls and cups rather then industry-standard disposable containers, is set to close after its 31st anniversary and annual screenings of Harold And Maude July 22-25. The theatre's July calendar is filled with the kinds of wonderful films that a group of passionate programmers might want to bring to audiences one last time before finally shutting the theatre doors: Vertigo July 5 & 6, Babe on July 10 & 11, What's Up, Doc July 12 & 13, Stop Making Sense July 15 & 16, Touch of Evil July 17 & 18, and (sadly fittingly) The Last Waltz Jul 19 & 20. They're also holding one last poster sale, and having cinephile-musician Jonathan Richman perform and present a screening of Romani filmmaker Tony Gatlif's Vengo.

Six months ago I wrote a blog post focusing on the impending fate of the Red Vic, as well as on the VIZ a.k.a. New People Cinema. Last week, the San Francisco Film Society announced a plan to bring year-round film programming to New People starting this fall. It's very welcome news, as the state-of-the-art venue has been underused in the half-year since my post. There is a current set of weekend matinee screenings of Japanese classics by Yasujiro Ozu (the Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice and, as seen in the top image on this post, Good Morning, neither of which have shown theatrically on Frisco Bay since 2003), Akira Kurosawa (a 35mm print of Red Beard and a digital showing of Scandal) and Shohei Imamura (a 35mm print of Vengeance Is Mine and a digital showing of The Pornographers) and upcoming showings of Das Boot and of K-20: the Fiend with Twenty Faces, the latter as a Japanese earthquake and tsunami benefit. But, with a few exceptions, these screenings peppered throughout the month represent more cinematic activity than New People has seen of late. Michael Hawley has written a characteristically thorough post on the deal that I suggest reading for more context.

One question that Hawley brings up is how this deal impacts upon the Film Society's historical use of Landmark Theatres for many of its Fall screening activities (French Cinema Now, New Italian Cinema, et cetera. September 2011 brings a Hong Kong series into the Film Society fold.) Another that he hints at is what this may mean for the future of Frisco's most venerable art house, the Clay, which has been regularly playing foreign films since the 1930s (when films by Marcel Pagnol, Sascha Guitry and Fei Mu, for instance, had runs) and midnight movies since the 1970s, and which was expected to close nearly a year ago. The SF Film Society's expressed interest in using the Clay for year-round-programming seemed to delay its closure. But now that this New People deal has made clear that Film Society negotiations with the Clay property owner went nowhere, I once again must wonder how long the latter venue will remain open. For now, Landmark has Michael Winterbottom's The Trip playing there, and it's expected to open French comedy The Names of Love Friday, July 29 and host a screening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show the next Saturday at midnight. Then, Sam Sharkey is to bring his popular monthly midnight screenings of the bizarrely, brazenly bad cult movie The Room from its former Red Vic home to the Clay on the second Saturday of August, September and October. We'll see.

Landmark is certainly the theatre chain that brings the most film titles of interest to a Frisco moviegoer weary of Hollywood sequelitis and remake fever. Recent Landmark hits include Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris and Terence Malick's the Tree of Life, and I expect upcoming bookings of Errol Morris's Tabloid (opening July 15) and of the Rialto Pictures revival of Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth (opening September 9) to do well also. The chain also screens a lot of titles that you have to closely follow the independent film and film festival world to recognize. (What will we do without David Hudson?) That's why I was actually rather excited to learn that local Landmark Theatres (along with most local AMC Theatres, a San Jose theatre devoted to South Asian cinema called Big Cinemas Towne 3, and the South Bay's Camera Cinemas mini-chain) were on the list of theatres participating in the pilot program called MoviePass, announced as launching this month as a kind of Frisco Bay beta-test. For $50 a month, moviegoers were to be admitted to any film playing at any of the participating theatres, as long as they didn't go to more than one movie per day, or (presumably as a precaution against fraud) go to any movie more than once. The thing is, these "participating theatres" weren't really participating-- the deals had been arranged through their online ticketing partner without input of the chain owners. Soon it was announced that the program would be canceled before it began, with theatre staff instructed not to honor tickets purchased through the MoviePass program. Still, it seems like a similar plan along such lines, if it ever were to be enacted, would hold great appeal to a segment of Frisco Bay cinephiles (though perhaps not the same segment that owns smartphones) and might even be effective in luring bargain-hunters not normally attracted to documentaries and foreign films into expanding their cinematic horizons. Lets hope future endeavors on the part of MoviePass are more thought-through.

Thanks for indulging on this rambling ride through a number of issues that have been on my mind lately. I managed to work in references to some of the notable screenings on Frisco Bay's horizon, but continue on with me and I'll share a few others I'm excited about.

The Pacific Film Archive's new calendar for July & August begins tonight withthe first of a set of American films noir set at least partly in Mexico, from rarities like Anthony Mann's The Great Flamarion to classics like Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past (which also features on the Castro Theatre's July calendar on a double-bill with another amazing Robert Mitchum starrer Night of the Hunter). Check what Dennis Harvey and Max Goldberg say on the series. The calendar continues with a great, if incomplete, series of Bernardo Bertolucci films, all in new prints, and a very welcome Jerzy Sklomowski series including what I believe to be Frisco Bay premieres of at least two films, his latest Essential Killing, starring Vincent Gallo, and Four Nights With Anna. I saw Essential Killing in Toronto last September and was both mightily impressed with it and embarrassed I'd never seen any of Skolimowski's films, other than a few he wrote for other directors (Roman Polanski & Andrej Wajda) early in his career. The Berkeley venue also presents a set of films written (and sometimes directed) by the previously mentioned Marcel Pagnol, programs presented by animator John Musker and animation scholar Karl Cohen, Kon Ichikawa's The Makioka Sisters, and a free outdoor screening of It Conquered The World. And the Japanese Divas program continues on from June. Jason Sanders has been putting together beautiful collections of images of the featured actresses from classic Japanese fan magazines on the BAM/PFA's own blog. Looking ahead to September and October, it's been learned that the PFA will play host to a series of films directed (some of them from inside prison walls) by persecuted Turkish filmmaker Yilmaz Güney.

The Roxie is playing host to a number of smaller film festivals this summer, and has announced a number of interesting screenings. Most interesting to me are the July 29-August 4 run of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's World on a Wire, which I saw at the last SF International Film Festival, a two-night stand of Surrogate Valentine, my favorite film of the last SF International Asian American Film Festival, and perhaps most exciting of all, a small Monte Hellman retrospective including the only one of his films I've seen thus far, Two Lane Blacktop, his well-regarded Cockfighter, and two films singled out as "Acid Westerns" by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting. Hellman will even be on hand July 22 to introduce his new film Road To Nowhere; he'll be at the Rafael Film Center in Marin County the next evening introducing the latter two films. Ride in the Whirlwind and Two-Lane Blacktop (though not Cockfighter) will play the Rafael that week as well.

The Rafael is also one of five screening venues for the 31st edition of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. This year, I'm particularly intrigued by the archival selections playing the festival, all at the Castro Theatre. Most impressively, Kirk Douglas has agreed to come to a Sunday afternoon, July 24th screening of Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus. How many legends of his stature still have the ability to make personal appearances? Suffice to say this is an incredible coup for the festival. If you're wondering what the overt Jewish content in Spartacus might be, let me just divert your attention over to the festival's other Kirk Douglas film The Juggler, directed by blacklist victim Edward Dmytryk in 1953. A third archival selection is a newly-subtitled 1939 Yiddish-language film Tevye, based on the same set of stories that inspired Fiddler On The Roof years later. I first heard of the film when I learned it had been inducted into the National Film Registry, and I'm excited to finally have a shot at seeing it, especially at the Castro.

The Castro is well worth frequenting in July as well. In addition to already-mentioned events, there's a 9-film tribute to the year 1984 hosted by Jesse Hawthorne Ficks as part of his MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS programming. July 20 brings a Todd Haynes double-bill: Poison and Safe. And the month bleeds into August with the first in a while of the Castro's now-trademark series devoted to great film composers, this time Max Steiner, which gives an excuse to show an astonishing array of beloved Hollywood classics: the original Mildred Pierce, Gone With The Wind, White Heat, King Kong and The Searchers are just some of these.

Of course July 14-17 are my own favorite days in the Castro's upcoming programming; it's the weekend of the Silent Film Festival, with which (I feel compelled to frequently mention, in the interest of full disclosure) I've been tangentially associated with, as a researcher and writer, for five years now. I'm very impressed with their program this year, and plan on discussing it in more detail at a future date. In the meantime, I notice that the Stanford Theatre is planning to bring back a summer silent screening series for the first time in several years. Buster Keaton films yet to be determined will be screened, and I'd bet that the July 15 date will feature organist Dennis James, who'll be in San Francisco July 16-17 to perform for the rediscovered Douglas Fairbanks comedy Mr. Fix-It and the Lois Weber-directed drama Shoes, and to share his perspectives on performing for silent films at the SFSFF's July 16 Variations on a Theme panel hosted by experienced silent film accompanist Jill Tracy. Silent film enthusiasts should also note that the Niles Film Museum also has its July-August calendar available as a pdf on its website. I'm most excited by the chance to see Leap Year, the final feature starring Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle made before his famous scandal.


  1. The Skolimowski series should be great - I've seen all of the films in it and it is an excellent selection. Only detail is Gallo is in Essential Killing but not in Four Nights with Anna.

  2. Thanks for the correction, anonymous! I've adjusted accordingly. I think I know where I got the mistaken impression Gallo was in the earlier film: conversations about his own latest film Promises Written in Water, which is stunningly beautiful and easily his best directorial feature, in which it was brought up that Gallo might have been inspired to write himself a role as a crematorium worker thanks to having seen Four Nights With Anna. And over time, the concept drifted in my mind into him being in it, not just seeing it.

  3. Like Dalton Trumbo, Spartacus author Howard Fast was cited for contempt of the U.S. Congress in 1950, and was affiliated with the Communist party. While not explicitly so, Spartacus (the film) can be read as a Jewish movie, or so I thought when I saw the restored version on the biggest screen in Denver.

    BTW, I've only seen a couple of Skolimowski's but one was Deep End which I caught a couple of times on the biggish screen.

  4. Wow, how wonderful that Safe is playing at the Castro. I try to encourage my friends to see it to get a glimpse into how much their support means to me as I journey through environmental sensitivities.

  5. Peter, Deep End is the item in the Skolimowski series I'm most eager to catch. I've heard great things.

    Colleen, I found Safe to be sych a hauntingly memorable film. Quite a disturbing one actually. But the kind that's of such high artistry that I really want to see it again. I'm probably going to go the Castro screening.