Thursday, July 14, 2011

Happy Bastille Day at the Silent Film Festival!

Only hours until the San Francisco Silent Film Festival begins, and word comes from the twitter feed of London-based composed Carl Davis, that he will be conducting the Oakland East Bay Symphony as they perform the score to the 1927 Abel Gance film Napoléon as the film unspools on the screen at the Paramount Theatre of the Arts in Oakland. According to the trailer linked to by Davis, the performances will be on March 24, 25, 31, and April 1st, 2012.

This is momentous news for silent film fans, as it represents the first official announcement that two of last year's special Oscar award recipients, Kevin Brownlow and Francis Ford Coppola. have found their way to collaborate after many years of being at odds over the rights to show Napoléon. This article helps explain why the film has not shown in a US cinema in nearly three decades, and why the version restored by Brownlow and scored by Davis has never been seen by American moviegoers.

For my part, I've never seen Napoléon, other than in brief clips like those seen in Brownlow's excellent documentary series (co-produced by David Gill) Cinema Europe: the Other Hollywood. Too young to have known about the screenings put on with Carmine Coppola's score until they'd already happened, and not well-heeled enough to catch this outdoor screening in 1997, I've always sensed that seeing it in a theatre, as opposed to on the VHS tapes available at Le Video and a few other surviving rental stores, would be worth the wait. It's been a long one, but there are only eight more months of it to go!

This announcement more than makes up for the fact that this summer marks the first SF Silent Film Festival since 2005 in which there hasn't been a program devoted to French films (although a few French shorts appear on the festival's sole all-digital program, Wild and Weird, including the hilarious Arthème Swallows his Clarinet.) Happy Bastille Day!

Brownlow, as you may have heard, will be returning to the festival this weekend after being awarded last year, will be back to speak at the 10AM Sunday morning event Amazing Tales From The Archives. Having seen the man speak at length on his love of silent film before, I predict that this is going to be the highlight of the entire festival for many (if not all) of its attendees. And it's free! Thomas Gladysz agrees, and he should know, having been involved in the silent film world far longer than I have. Get to the Castro Theatre early for this one!

Some more articles on or related to the 2011 SF Silent Film Festival, in case you still haven't decided what to watch:

Carl Martin on the provenance of the prints and restorations.
Michael Hawley has a comprensive preview of the line-up.
Dennis Harvey writes about A Nail In the Boot for the SF Bay Guardian and on Shoes for sf360.
J. F. DeFreitas on the line-up, with a special focus on Yasujiro Ozu's I Was Born, But.... (which is the film I wrote on for the program guide. Be sure to arrive at the Friday, 4:15 show a little early to catch the slide show on Ozu that I've prepared!)
It's Silent Film Week at the Fandor Keyframe blog, and I've contributed a piece on Douglas Fairbanks. I can't wait to see him in Mr. Fix-It on Saturday!
The festival's own blog has begun collecting more links as well.

I would also be remiss in neglecting to mention a few other Frisco Bay screenings of note, for those whose budget is too tight to wrap around Silent Film Festival ticket prices. Lech Majewski's incredible digital opera The Roe's Room plays tonight at SFMOMA. The new Stanford Theatre calendar is up, and it includes four Friday evenings of Buster Keaton films accompanied by Dennis James at the Wurlitzer, starting tomorrow night. And the Pacific Film Archive's upcoming weekend is full of rarely-screened but highly-regarded films, most notably a new print of Bernardo Bertolucci's epic 1900.

Friday, July 8, 2011


Two sad pieces of news relevant to this blog started off this shortened week. First, the announcement that San Francisco Film Society executive director Graham Leggat is stepping down for health reasons, after five years of wonderful service to the city's extended film community. He strengthened the city's foremost film exhibition organization in immeasurable ways at a moment when leadership like his was sorely needed, but I also appreciated his rare candor as a contributor to the programming team for the annual San Francisco International Film Festival. He wasn't afraid to publicly admit his favorite film in the festival, even if it was a potentially alienating one to the casual observer. (In 2006 he cited Tsai Ming-Liang's The Wayward Cloud, and this year his pick was Lech Majewski's The Mill and the Cross). Leah Garchik has a good article that details his reasons for departure, and shows us that Leggat's courage is in no way limited to his approach to film programming.

Another sad, if very much predicted, news item was the Red Vic's official announcement that it will definitely be closing July 25th after thirty-one years of operation on Haight Street. This is the first time I've closed one of the parentheses on my "Frisco Cinemas" sidebar list. I recently went through my records to figure that I've seen at least 75 screenings there in the past decade and a half (or so). It sounds like a lot, but right now I'm also thinking of all the films I never got around to seeing when they (in some cases quite frequently) played there. Who's going to bring around prints of Foxy Brown or The Good Old Naughty Days or The Holy Mountain or Stop Making Sense (which I must miss when it plays July 15-16) once the venue is shut? Reminiscences are popping up all over the web, but perhaps the most pointed and poignant is Peter Hartlaub's. Cheryl Eddy's interview with Claudia Lehan is the best article I've seen on the details behind the closure.

I don't want to dwell on negative news though. The reason I won't be able to catch Stop Making Sense at the Red Vic next week is that I'll be celebrating the cinema of the 1900s, 1910s, 1920s and even early 1930s with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival from Thursday night until Sunday night. The festival's own blog has been gearing up for the event for weeks now with its remarkably informative series Film Preservation Fridays. Today's entry is an interview with two of the archivists instrumental in bringing festival opener Upstream to light after decades when even the most knowledgeable John Ford scholars assumed it lost. A must-read.

The San Francisco Public Library is also preparing for the event by spreading an exhibition about silent film in several locations on the fourth and sixth floors of the Main Library. Thomas Gladysz has curated one section of the exhibit, "Reading The Stars", focusing on books about filmmaking and famous filmmakers, and on movie tie-ins, all published during the silent era! Another section, curated by Rory J. O'Connor, looks at silent-era filmmaking in San Francisco and elsewhere around Frisco Bay. A third, on the sixth floor, is devoted to silent-era movie palaces. The library will be hosting two events around the exhibition, which will remain up until August 28th. This Sunday at 2PM the library will host a projected video screening of Son of the Sheik starring Rudolph Valentino. Valentino expert Donna Hill will be on hand to introduce the screening and sign copies of her breathtakingly beautiful book of rare Valentino photographs. Then, on August 7th, Diana Serra Carey, who performed in 1920s films as "Baby Peggy", will talk about her life in Hollywood and screen an as-yet-unnamed short film. Both events are free to the public, as is the exhibition.

I was recruited to get involved in this exhibit in a very small way: by providing a piece of text talking about this year's Silent Film Festival for one of the display cases. Librarian Gretchen Good, who organized the exhibition along with the SFPL exhibitions staff (including Maureen Russell) said it would be fine to publish the text on my blog as well, so here it is, though I couldn't resist jazzing it up with some hyperlinks:

Every summer for the past fifteen years, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has taken over the Castro Theatre for a weekend of great movies, live music, and the conviviality of silent film fans. The 16th annual festival, held July 14-17, 2011, is their biggest event yet. Thirteen feature films made on four different continents will screen, along with two programs of shorts (one devoted to Walt Disney's first films, one to the earliest special effects films), two free programs of film archivists presenting their latest restorations and unearthings from the vaults, and much more.

Marlene Dietrich, Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, John Gilbert, Janet Gaynor, George O'Brien, Louise Dressler, Pina Menichelli and Douglas Fairbanks are some of the stars featured in this year's festival films. Well-known classics like F.W. Murnau's Sunrise, Yasujiro Ozu's I Was Born, But..., and Victor Sjöström's He Who Gets Slapped screen along with recently rediscovered films like Allan Dwan's Mr. Fix-It and John Ford's Upstream. Seven musical ensembles and soloists rotate in performing live musical scores to each film, and gather Saturday, July 16th on a panel discussion to talk about the role of music in the silent film world.

Every year the festival gives an award to an organization or individual for "distinguished contributions to the preservation and restoration of world film heritage." This year's award is presented to the UCLA Film & Television Archive at a screening of The Goose Woman. American Sign Language interpreters are on hand for the festival's special-guest introductions and panels. Film lovers travel from far and wide to attend the festival, but the screenings are just as fun for people who have never seen a silent movie before.
Hope to see you at the festival next week!

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.