Thursday, December 27, 2012

Lazy Sundays: The Sessions

Cheryl Eddy's contribution to the Bay Guardian's Year In Film issue published yesterday makes it sound like it's already happened, but the 73-year-old Bridge Theatre hasn't closed yet. It closes tonight, with a film I didn't have much initial interest in seeing but felt compelled to take a look at after learning it would likely be the last hurrah for one of Frisco Bay's few remaining single-screen cinemas. (That's assuming no other operator might want to take the Bridge over after Landmark departs tonight; an assumption questioned in this sfgate article). I liked it so much I plan to go back for the final show tonight; it's not a perfect film (it doesn't make my own just-published list of 2012's best commercial releases, but it would be a close runner-up. And I can't think of a better current film to close the curtain on the Bridge, which I attended dozens of times, at first to see modern "tradition-of-quality" films like the German sub movie Das Boot (my 1st Bridge excursion), but made my most enduring memories loyally attending Peaches Christ's midnight screenings of cult films like Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Carrie, and Showgirls. The film playing tonight includes a wonderful sequence tributing the midnight movie- specifically the Rocky Horror Picture Show and its live-casts that still carry the midnight tradition today, even if Peaches no longer stays up that late. 

I'm being coy about the title of the film (pictured above) because all this is an extended introduction to a piece by my friend (and new twitter followee) Adam Hartzell, the #1 Bridge Theatre fan I know, who rather than getting all melancholy about his favorite theatre closing, has decided to move forward and redouble his commitment to other Richmond District/Laurel Heights area theatres. And to mention the name of the film playing tonight would spoil a bit of the poetry of his opening paragraph. Here's Adam:

The sign was on the marquee, bellowing the supposed perks of the wallflower weeks well after the film's initial release. Something foreboding was afoot. Then we saw the same perks pitched week after week with no new release on the horizon.  We heard the rumors and this was a neon sign of the coming cine-pocalypse that The Bridge would soon close. And the time has come.
I am bummed.  I regularly attended screenings at The Bridge as part of a self-devised independent theatre adoption program.  I did my part.  But I am but one cinephile with only so much disposable income.  As a result, I will no longer be able to walk a few blocks to The Bridge.  Thankfully, this being San Francisco, I still have options.  I will now jump on the 38 if it's coming, or walk if it isn't, in order to head down to the 4 Star Theatre on Clement or travel further to the Balboa Theatre on its eponymous street.  Sometimes, I'll head in the opposite direction to catch something at The Vogue.  I have consistently patronized these theaters as well, but now I will attend even more screenings than I did before.  My adopted theatre has left me.  It's time to move on to others.
In fact, with my wife having to work Sundays at her new job, I've decided to make Sunday a fairly regular movie-going tradition.  This tradition will be a regular jumping off point for an occasional feature here at Hell on Frisco Bay - Lazy Sundays at the 4 Star or The Balboa or The Vogue.
And an inaugurating lazy Sunday it was.  The air was misty from the typical Richmond District kinda-rain streaking the streets, windows, and my glasses as I walked (the 38 wasn't coming) to the House of Bagels for a pumpernickel bagel with cream cheese and sat for a spell to nosh the bagel at Argonne Playground.  After I finished my bagel, I walked to the 4 Star as an escape from the wet weather.  I casually conversed with the ticket-taker as I purchased my small buttered popcorn and small ice-less root beer.  (Independent movie houses rely on a significant percentage of their income from concession sales so I always concede to purchase something along with the ticket.)  The inaugural edition of this tradition found me watching The Sessions (Ben Lewin, 2012) along with a fairly respectably-sized audience. 
The Sessions, as you likely already know due to the Oscar buzz around Helen Hunt's 49 year-old nudity, John Hawkes' Oscar-baiting embodiment of able-bodied disability, and William H. Macy's long-haired priestly-ness, is a film based on an article on sex and disability written by the late Berkeley poet and journalist Mark O'Brien.  This was a topic close to O'Brien's heart, and other body parts, since he himself was disabled by polio as a young boy and lived much of his years in an iron lung, an impediment to developing a considerable sex life.  O'Brien was able to use his mind to write poetry and act as a journalist.  He required the assistance of care-givers to propel him to visits to Catholic confession and secular reporting assignments.  One of those assignments was, as mentioned above, on sex and disability, a 'door-opening' that enabled O'Brien to confront his situation-imposed virginity and the emotions tied up with his sexual longings.
When I came out of the theatre, I was happy in spite of the gloomy weather.  The film was a joy to watch and it left me with hope for the world.  I highly recommend catching it.  But as the film rumbled around in my head, I began to find myself disappointed in the film.  So if you haven't seen The Sessions, stop reading here.  Go and experience the joy the film brings before I possibly ruin it for you.
First, something somewhat positive about The Sessions: it does more than the average dramatic film where one of the lead characters has a disability.  My remark about the Academy of Arts and Sciences privileging able-bodied folks further by rewarding their taking of disabled roles with Oscar nominations is a bit of snark, but that snark is fueled by the frustration that Hollywood rarely provides substantial roles to the Disabled.  As much as I wish they'd made an effort to enable a lead role for a disabled actor, I do appreciate that they seemed to be aware of this less than admirable track record and provided considerable screen time for at least one visibly disabled actress in the film, Jennifer Kumiyama.  The Sessions is an improvement on opportunities for disabled actresses.  In the same vein of more representative representation, Bay Area folk will be happy to see a film about our region that actually includes the casual everyday diversity that motivated many of us to come out here before everyone started claiming they were an entrepreneur. 
Now for the buzz kill.  As much as I enjoyed Helen Hunt's role, my cynicism can't help but wonder if her Oscar-worthy-ness has to do with her being an older women who is often naked in the film.  (Her character is a sex surrogate, so nakedness comes with the job.)  It's as if she's being rewarded for disrobing so late in life.  She's gorgeous and it's nice that Hollywood is slowly starting to realize that older women are beautiful too.  Yet as much as this celebration of almost-50 nakedness, The Sessions contradicts this tale of unshackled bodies by its refusal to challenge another aspect of American puritanism. One would expect a movie like this to be willing to show a little penis if it's so sexually liberated, but even The Sessions makes cuts in order to prevent a little pecker from poking its way through the diegetic frame.  Such censorious constraints limit the impact of what might have been a much more powerful reflection of our bodies, ourselves.
And the films penis-less-ness is what makes an otherwise decent film a disappointment as it sticks in my mind days after watching it.  But that is part of my movie-going experience and that wider experience did not disappoint.  Being in the 4 Star's main theatre with other patrons laughing, smiling, and tearing up is part of the pleasure in the collective experience that is cinema-going.  I don't get that on my computer screen.  But my computer screen can let me know how to get there, to a theatre near me.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Vertigo, Vertigo-ing, Vertigone.

Last week, San Francisco Chronicle columnists Matier & Ross reported that the owners of a house at the corner of Lombard and Jones Streets had recently completed a major remodel to the exterior of their home. Normally I wouldn't take notice of changes made to a private residence, but here the building in question has historic significance to cinephiles. It's 900 Lombard, the residence of Jimmy Stewart's character Scottie in Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece Vertigo.

Though the indoor scenes in Scottie's apartment were shot at a Hollywood studio, the view from his window, with the phallic Coit Tower looming over the landscape, remains essentially unchanged from when it was synced, through the magic of 1958 Hollywood technology, to these crucial interior shots. But the facade, which features in two just-as-crucial scenes, now is no longer recognizable as a Vertigo location from the street.

One would think the owners of the house, who apparently own a business dependent on the tourist trade, would want to honor the historic nature of their home. Surely they were aware of the movie connection when they moved in 23 years ago, as by this point it was a well-known fact, documented in Michael Oliver-Goodwin and Lynda Myles's 1982
San Francisco magazine article (reprinted in this book). But, according to Matier & Ross, they made the change precisely because they were getting too much attention from Vertigo location hunters.



It seems rather preposterous to me that there would be many cinephiles ringing the doorbell of a private residence, as if expecting a red-robed Kim Novak to answer the door. But what do I know. Maybe there are a lot more unmannered Hitchcock diehards out there than I realized. I do know that I've personally avoided mentioning the addresses of private residences when writing abut film locations (including 
Vertigo's) on this blog and elsewhere- until now. And when I've visited 900 Lombard I've been careful to respect the privacy of the owners by keeping my voice down and avoiding getting too close to the property, much less trespass.

Reading through the many reader comments on the Matier & Ross article at
sfgate.com is depressing to someone like me. The general gist of most of them is: "it's only a movie", "private property rights trump all other concerns" and "film buffs are a pathetic and slovenly lot", although there are a few welcome counter-examples. I don't know. Maybe I'm sensitive because I recently wrote an essay about 1940s & 50s San Francisco location filmmaking for a book expected to be published next year (as part of this series.) Or maybe I've just seen too many Hitchcock movies and have gone overly suspicious, but I feel like there's something else happening here, and the Vertigo connection is more of an excuse than a reason for the remodeling.



Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I made an excursion to Jones and Lombard to take a look at the changes up close. I went with local filmmaker Sean Gillane, who earlier this month saw his ambitious narrative feature directing debut
CXL get its world premiere screening at the SF Film Society's Cinema By The Bay festival. Another world premiere at this festival was Alejandro Adams's fourth feature Amity, which for me is his best picture since his own feature debut Around The Bay. Take that endorsement as you will, as in the past few years I've become friends with Adams, and he and his girlfriend Sara Vizcarrondo (another friend) once invited me to participate in an on-camera discussion of another of my favorite filmmakers (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) on their show "Look Of The Week". Likewise, Gillane (who re-used more than one Vertigo location for his CXLsuggested he film me discussing Vertigo and its role in the psycho-geography of San Francisco at the site, and so he did. I don't know what the fate of this footage will be once it's been edited, but I trust it's in good hands, and will certainly keep Hell On Frisco Bay readers posted.

2012 has been quite a roller-coaster year for lovers of Hitchcock in general and
Vertigo in particular. For every previously-lost film he assistant-directed made available for free on-line, there's a dreadful-looking, currently-in-theatres Hitchcock docudrama (which focuses its attention on Psycho and not Vertigo; I haven't seen it yet and am not sure I want to). I've mentioned here before that Vertigo unseated Citizen Kane in the most highly-regarded critical poll of the "Greatest Films Of All-Time" this August. It was an ascent 50 years in the making, as when Kane first took that honor in 1962, the four-year-old film Vertigo was selected by only three voters, all Frenchmen: Eric Rohmer, Jean Douchet & Jacques Siclier. From there Vertigo placed #12 in 1972's Sight & Sound Poll, #7 in 1982's, #4 in 1992's and #2 in 2002's poll before achieving top spot this year, being named among the ten best of all time by 191 critics and curators (including Flicker Alley founder and president Jeff Masino, who I interviewed for Keyframe recently.)



But it was hard for many Vertigo fans to properly celebrate this changing of the guard, knowing that one of the film's leading champions had died just days before. I wrote a bit about Chris Marker's Vertigo connection in my obituary for the cinephile and filmmaker, and linked to a pdf of his 1994 essay on Vertigo, but without comment. Though Marker's 1983 essay film Sans Soleil avoided using the 900 Lombard location, this essay references it, without mentioning the house number:
San Francisco, of course, is nothing but another character in the film. [screenwriter] Samuel Taylor wrote to me agreeing that Hitchcock liked the town but only knew ‘what he saw from hotels or restaurants or out of the limo window’. He was ‘what you might call a seden­tary person’. But he still decided to use the Dolores Mission and, strangely, to make the house on Lombard Street Scottie’s home ‘because of the red door’.
If Marker and the red door no longer exist, Vertigo and Sans Soleil still do. The former film will appear in 35mm at the Pacific Film Archive March 13th as part of the Spring semester's Film 50 afternoon screening and lecture series devoted to "The Cinematic City". The latter film recently played the same venue as part of a compact Chris Marker tribute which concludes tonight.



Shortly after publishing my Marker blog piece last July, I was honored to receive an e-mail from one of Marker's local allies: Tom Luddy. Though I never visited the Pacific Film Archive during Luddy's time as programmer there, in recent years I've seen him at local film events rather frequently, whether in the audience, on stage (as when he received an award on behalf of the Telluride Film Festival, which he co-directs, at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival last summer), or even on-screen (as a key participant in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, which after years of watching on VHS and DVD, I finally saw in a cinema this year thanks to SFMOMA). Luddy cleared up some of the information I'd written about Marker's film Junkopia. The print of this film which I'd seen twice at the PFA was in fact his print, on deposit at that institution. He has graciously allowed me to quote from his e-mail for readers:
Chris came to the Bay Area fairly often in the '70s and '80s, when I was at PFA ('72-'79) and Zoetrope ('80 to the present), sometimes on stopovers to Japan, and sometimes for the two major films that had sequences he shot in Northern California -- Sans Soleil and The Owl's Legacy. I helped him on both. He also did a little second-unit work on Rumble Fish for Zoetrope for a brief moment.
He always stayed in Berkeley, sometimes at my place and sometimes at the Hotel Shattuck. I drove him to SF many times in the '70s.  He was fascinated by the Emeryville Mudflats and one day asked me if anyone had made a film on the ever-changing gallery of objects on display there. I said I did not think there was a film, and he said "let's make one".
So I recruited John and Frank from Zoetrope, and some equipment, and in no time we were shooting there. He was very generous in putting in the credits "Filmed by Chris Marker, John Chapman, and Frank Simeone." But in fact this is a film by Chris Marker in the authorial sense. He gave me a Credit for SPECIAL EFFECTS.... don't ask to explain what for?
He called his producer for many films --Anatole Dauman-- in Paris. Anatole agreed to cover all the costs of the film. Anatole wanted to pay me for my work on the film. I refused to take any money but I said it would be great if I could get a 35mm print as a kind of compensation.  He said fine as he did on Sans Soleil as well. I have a 35mm print of Sans Soleil on deposit at PFA too.
I worked on films with great film-makers (Godard, Agnes Varda, Francis Coppola, etc) and with many more thru my work at PFA, Telluride, San Francisco Film Festival and so on.... Chris is/was the most impressive of them all -- a genius as a writer, photographer, film-maker, collage artist, sound designer, historian, poet...and a great human being.

Tom Luddy's print of Junkopia will screen at the PFA again tonight on a program with a chapter from Marker's 13-part The Owl's Legacy, and with two Marker works made well before his association with Luddy: Les Astronautes (pictured above) and La Jetée. Also screening is Emiko Omori's new documentary To Chris Marker, an Unsent Letter, which Luddy appears in along with other Frisco Bay-connected film personalities like David Thomson, Peter Scarlet, Erika Marcus and David and Janet Peoples. Be there!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Adam Hartzell on Ping Pong

With 2012's protracted election season finally over, it seems a perfect time to get a dose of the real world outside the bubble of punditry, anxiety and spin. What better way to do that than to watch documentaries? For instance, the remarkable 50-year-old celebrity portrait Lonely Boy screens Friday night with other gems at Oddball Films, a rare screening and a timely one since its co-director Roman Kroitor died this past September. SFIndie's DocFest also opens just in time, tonight, and runs through the day before Thanksgiving at the Roxie (which has a worthy kickstarter fundraising going on right now) and other venues, with a host of non-fiction films on subjects such as art, music, food, sports, and yes, a little bit of politics. My friend Adam Hartzell, (who I just realized I haven't yet mentioned here invited me to talk about Studio Ghibli films for a podcast a couple months ago) has previewed one of the films on the program. Here's Adam: 


The film that most drives me to queue up at this year's San Francisco Documentary Film Festival running bi-bay from November 8th-21st, is Grandma Lo-fi: The Basement Tapes of Sigrdur Níelsdóttir, a Danish-Icelandic co-production directed by Kristín Björk, Orri Jonsson, and Ingibjorg Birgisdóttir, themselves participants in the Icelandic music and art scenes.  I had heard (and watching this film will hopefully verify or disprove) that members of that amazing ensemble Sigur Rós helped 'discover' the hidden musical gems that Níelsdóttir was creating merely for her family and friends.  And as has been said by many about this less populated island situated where the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans pour into each other, most everyone in Iceland knows each other, and by extension, become 'family and friends'.  That all said, a family obligation will actually keep me from hearing along with seeing on screen what the 70 year-old began recording on cassette tape in geographical and subculture isolation.   


But what I have had the opportunity to see from this year's SF DocFest is Director Hugh Hartford's equally elder-ed Ping Pong.  (This documentary also contains its own bit of pleasant music in the closing credits where the ping-pong-ing of a ball on table tennis table and raqcuet, what I've learned the British players call a 'bat', provides the beat).  Ping Pong follows eight over 80-years-old players competing in the Senior World Table Tennis Championships.  Two from England, two from Germany, one from Sweden, one avid smoker from China, one Austrian immigrant from the United States, and one 100 year-old sensation from Australia.

I've recently found myself appreciating the sport of table tennis while in Japan during the London 2012 Olympics.  The only Japanese athlete representing my wife's hometown of Yamaguchi City, Kazumi Ishikawa, came in that bitter-tasting fourth place individually but ended with a Silver medal for the woman's team event.  The moment when they secured at least the silver by beating Singapore in the semi-finals was something we got to watch over and over again because Japanese television constantly re-played that match.  I still feel the teary joy sparked via my mirror neurons when looking at images of Kazumi and her teammate's crying after securing their place in the final gold medal match.  The joy was not a chance to win gold.  They were merely happy to finally get a medal for Japan in the event, guaranteed a silver.  Everyone knew Japan wouldn't win the gold medal match because, well, the Chinese always win.


. . . Except on the senior circuit, as we learn from Ping Pong.  Ping Pong is not a typical sports documentary designed to have you revel in exquisite athleticism. No one has 'impressive' kinesthetic skills here.  You are merely happy some of these athletes can keep up with the demanding pace, let alone simple keep themselves standing up in the first place.  As a result of not being able to show dynamic play, Hartford includes some nice diversions from the typical sports doc set-ups.  For example, not much is shown of the final matches.  More attention is paid towards the lives of the athletes and the demographic stage of life in which each athlete is an age cohort.  Englishman Terry, the youngest of the bunch, is battling through life-threatening illnesses.  German Inge is able to play through her dementia while her compatriot Ursuhla hopes to die on the table tennis table.  Then there's Les, the Charles Atlas of senior table tennis, who looks like he'll go on for another 80 years at this rate.

Ping Pong treats its subjects with respect, letting them tell their own stories, allowing the humor and sympathy to come from them rather than imposing either upon them through editing.  A core message is what such an activity can allow for us in our elder years.  A senior circuit like that shown in this documentary provides regular exercise for the elderly, plus such competition provides the mental benefits of a focused challenge that offers the side benefit of enabling one to focus away from the pains and limited abilities of old age.  And most important, it provides a community of folks who refuse to bowl alone, to adjust a Robert D. Putnam phrase, since it takes two to table tennis.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Festival of Horror

There isn't a day between now and Thanksgiving in which at least one film festival can't be found somewhere here on Frisco Bay. This has actually been the case since the United Nations Association Film Festival began on October 18th. It ends tonight, while the Chinese American Film Festival ends tomorrow, and the San Francisco Film Society's French Cinema Now series runs until this Tuesday, October 30th (I can recommend the closing night selection Sister by Ursula Meier of Home notoriety, who will be on hand for the screening. Check Film-415 for more suggestions). The upstart Silicon Valley Film Festival comes to Santa Clara beginning Halloween night, and the venerable American Indian Film Festival begins here in San Francisco two days later. Before that's over, SF IndieFest's 11th Annual DocFest will have begun its two-week run at the Roxie and other venues. In the midst of all of these festivals are... more festivals, like the California Independent Film Festival in Orinda and Moraga, and the SFFS's Cinema By The Bay and New Italian Cinema here in Frisco proper. I count twelve in all, and that doesn't include Not Necessarily Noir III, the excellent series running through Halloween, where I've already seen brilliant neo-noir gems like To Live And Die In L.A. and Miami Blues as well as an extraordinarily rare 35mm print of Monte Hellman's 1974 Cockfighter. Perhaps I ought to think of that as a festival, as it self-identifies as on the Roxie website, as well. Anyway, after this dozen-festival (or baker's dozen?) streak ends on November 21st, we're likely to be in for a month or two of comparative festival drought, with only the Another Hole in the Head genre film festival and the touring Found Footage Festival detected by my feelers until Noir City opens in late January. Noir City's full line-up will be revealed at a December 19th Castro Theatre double-bill screening of as-yet-undisclosed titles. 


With two big writing deadlines (for forthcoming publications, more details later) and other activities, October's been busy enough for me that I haven't been able to go out to the cinema as much as I'd normally like, much less post on this blog. Because I've got big plans for celebrating Halloween with a family member's wedding on that day, I won't be able to see any of the horror movies playing during the last few days of October, like the double-features playing the final two days of Not Necessarily Noir III, the one playing Tuesday at the Castro Theatre, the screening of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (and the Cameraman's Revenge) with live organ accompaniment at Davies Symphony Hall that night, or the screenings of the original John Carpenter Halloween at the Balboa Theatre Tuesday and Wednesday.

Luckily for a busy groomsman like myself, there will be many opportunities to celebrate Halloween belatedly with plenty of special horror movie screenings throughout November and even into December. Of foremost interest is probably the Stanford Theatre, which has just extended its published calendar until the end of next month, continuing with the Universal Pictures centennial celebration it began in September by moving from the 1920s & 30s into the 1940s. As I mentioned in my last post, Universal horror rarities Werewolf of London and Secret of the Blue Room will screen on Halloween, but also on the following day before being switched out for a print of the famous Lon Chaney, Sr. silent Phantom of the Opera on Friday, November 2. Now we know that Universal's 1943 Phantom starring Claude Rains will play November 3-4 alongside Cobra Woman, a film that rarely gets labeled a horror movie, but that in my mind connects directly to RKO supernatural thrillers of its era like Cat People and The Leopard Man.   November 14-16 brings a double-bill of the Karloff-less 1940 reboot The Mummy's Hand and the Lon Chaney, Jr. star-maker The Wolf Man from 1941. The rest of November at the Stanford showcases Universal's range, bumping a Hitchcock thriller (Saboteur) up against a W.C. Fields farce (The Bank Dick), placing a Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes favorite (The Scarlet Claw) with an Ole Olson/Chic Johnson vehicle in which they make a cameo (Crazy House) , and devoting double-bills to Robert Siodmak noirs, or Abbot & Costello musical-comedies. A complete Deanna Durbin retrospective is promised for December at the venue.

Back to horror movies, the Napa Valley Film Festival is showing two of the scariest ones ever made alongside documentaries about them. Stanley Kubrick's The Shining screens November 7th just after the Frisco Bay premiere of Rodney Ascher's much-anticipated investigation into the film's cult and scholarly following Room 237, while George Romero's Night of the Living Dead screens after the last of three showings of what looks to be a more traditional making-of documentary, Year of the Living Dead. Less "traditionally" a horror movie, but no less horrific, and (in my view) no less great a film than Romero's, is Ted Kotcheff's Wake In Fright, which similarly finds one man up against a threatening army of individuals who want to turn him into one of their own (in this case brain-numbed alcoholic Australians rather than brain-eating zombies). It currently screens in 35mm at the Opera Plaza through at least November 1st. It also plays at the Shattuck in Berkeley, but I'm not sure that venue still has 35mm projection equipment on hand after a recent digital makeover, which I've been told has also left the California Theatre without 35mm capability, and the Embarcadero with only one of its screens 35mm-capable.

The films of Jan Svankmajer are frequently labeled as horror films, justifiably so, I think. There's little more cinematically unsettling than the visceral visions on display in films like Alice, Little Otik, etc. The Yerba Buena Center For The Arts devotes most of November in its screening room to the Czech animator, and is screening works by a perhaps-similar animator named Nathalie Djurberg in the galleries through January. The aforementioned Another Hole in the Head (HoleHead) festival has moved its festival from its traditional early-summer slot to bridge November and December, specifically in order to improve its position in the festival marketplace for for horror films particularly (undoubtedly the fest has made some spotty picks in the past), and is bringing such titles as The Killing Games, Road To Hell, and Deadball. The latter is HoleHead favorite director Yudai Yamaguchi's return to the scene of the crime of his first feature, Battlefield Baseball: the baseball diamond. San Francisco Giants fans should turn out in droves to see a splatter movie about a pitcher with a literally deadly arm, but note: one of Yamaguchi's previous film projects put him afoul of a Yomiuri Giant in 2005.

Atypically, the HoleHead offering I'm probably most curious about is actually not a film at all but the opening night party entertainment: a one-man Oingo Boingo cover act that goes by the name Only A Lad but is also known as Starbeast II. Oingo Boingo was one of the bands I saw perform live as often as I could in my high school and college days, seeing them six times before frontman Danny Elfman devoted his musical attention exclusively to composing film scores. It was a band formed out of the ashes of Los Angeles theatre troupe the Mystic Knights Of Oingo Boingo, whose sensibility was (so I understand) best documented by the 1980 cult-film oddity Forbidden Zone, which will screen at Terra Gallery before the opening-night party in a new colorized version. Director (and Danny's older brother) Richard Elfman will be in attendance to answer questions like: "why would you want to colorize Forbidden Zone?" He is known to be an excellent raconteur, and I confirmed this at an in-person screening (of the original version) at the Lumiere Theatre in 2004. Certainly one of the most memorable screenings I ever took in at the Lumiere, which sadly closed its doors as a Landmark-operated theatre just over a month ago, with no indication that it will find a new tenant to operate it in the time since.

Since Forbidden Zone really is no more a horror movie than The Rocky Horror Picture Show is (its relationship to the weirdest pop culture artifacts of the 1930s is not dissimilar to that of Rocky Horror's relationship to 1950s drive-in movies), let me steer back on the track I keep veering off of: horror movies showing after Halloween. The Pacific Film Archive's November-December calendar actually includes a number of horror or borderline-horror films on it. Barry Gifford will be on hand on the last Thursday in November and the first two Saturdays in December, for a five-program tribute to his screenwriting career including the often bone-chilling Lost Highway and more collaborations with David Lynch and international autuers. And the continuing fall tribute to pre-nouvelle vague French filmmaking includes a pair of eerie, supernatural-themed classics and one authentique horror movie, Georges Franju's unforgettable Eyes Without A Face. One last note: when I first saw that the PFA would presenting three new restorations of diverse, masterpiece-level works by avant-garde filmmakers on Halloween night I wrote it off as counter-programming. But I recently remembered that Vincent Price narrates one of the three, the lovely Notes On The Port Of St. Francis by Frank Stauffacher. It's good that the horror movie master's sonorous tones will be able to entertain an audience that evening, even if I'm going to have to miss it myself.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

South And North

Since my previous post on the Frisco Bay screening scene, two major pieces of news have caught the eyes of cinephiles like myself. First, the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto quietly began a new multi-calendar series last week. It's an extensive centennial tribute to Universal Pictures, focusing attention on the oldest of the Hollywood studios, which mogul Carl Laemmle formed out of his company IMP (Independent Moving Pictures Company) and several others after emerging victorious in his legal battle with the 'old guard' of American motion picture production: Edison, Bioscope, Vitagraph, etc. a.k.a. "The Trust". The first picture made at his Universal City studio after this formation, At Old Fort Dearborn, was released on September 28, 1912, and was itself a centennial commemoration of a War of 1812 battle taking place where Chicago would eventually be founded. Though this film (if it indeed exists) is not announced for the Stanford schedule, there are three silent film presentations between now and the end of the calendar: two early entries in the famous "Universal Horror" series: the spooky Cat and the Canary this Friday September 21 & Lon Chaney's famous Phantom of the Opera November 2nd, as well as Erich von Stroheim's 1922 drama Foolish Wives on October 12th. All three will feature Dennis James at the Wurlitzer organ, and will hopefully be followed by more Universal silent films in subsequent calendars.


The Good Fairy (William Wyler, 1935) screen capture from Kino DVD
The meat of the Stanford schedule over the next two months is not 1920s silents, however, but a healthy sampling of features from the 1930-1935 period, all on 35mm prints as usual at this venue. Essentially all of the surviving Universal Horror films from this period will screen, from famous titles like Dracula and the Mummy to lesser-knowns Werewolf of London and Secret of the Blue Room, paired on Halloween night. With quite a few films by melodrama master John Stahl (Magnificent Obsession & Imitation of Life make a double-bill of Douglas Sirk pre-makes Oct. 13-14) and a complete retrospective of James Whale's work from 1931's Waterloo Bridge and Frankenstein to his 1935 Bride of Frankenstein and Remember Last Night?, the series is ideal for auteurists. If this Wednesday & Thursday's pairing of Frank Borzage's rarely-shown but highly-regarded Little Man, What Now? with one of my very favorite William Wyler films (from a Preston Sturges screenplay) The Good Fairy doesn't entice you to Palo Alto I'm not sure what I can say. Maybe you have an excuse if you're immersing yourself in one of the two other current studio-focused film series happening in Berkeley right now. I was sad to miss Stahl's 1933 Only Yesterday last week but glad I caught Isao Takahata's 1991 film with coincidentally the same (English) title- it was as equal to the best films of Hayao Miyazaki as it was different from them, and it plays again at the California Theatre this Wednesday only.

The other studio-focused series in Berkeley is the Pacific Film Archive's Nikkatsu centennial, which I'm sad to say I haven't been able to attend any of yet. (How could I let myself miss a rare Mizoguchi film?) There are still quite a few screenings left to go however, including a Daisuke Ito chambara from the silent era and three Seijun Suzuki selections from the 1960s. Like Universal, Nikkatsu is still in action today, releasing films like Rent-A-Cat, which will screen nearby next month. This brings me to screening news #2: Last Wednesday's press conference and announcement of the program for the Mill Valley Film Festival happening in various Marin County venues from October 4-14. 


In Another Country (Hong Sangsoo, 2012) courtesy Mill Valley Film Festival
Though the press conference itself was underwhelming (why rent the Dolby Labs screening room and then show compressed clips with cut-off subtitles and obfuscating pixelation? Well, at least the festival trailer looked great.) the program itself more than made up for that. Quite a few of the festival circuit's hottest titles, by veteran auteurs and up-and-coming makers alike, are part of the MVFF program this year. Whether this is because the festival is celebrating an anniversary itself (its 35th) or because of other factors, I don't know, but there's no doubt I'm finding more to lure me on the trek North this year than I've ever seen on a prior Mill Valley program. I don't feel left out of hyped Eastern festivals, knowing that 7 highly-anticipated films from the New York Film Festival's main slate are set to play here in less than a month: Christian Mungiu's Beyond The Hills, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's Caesar Must Die, Antonio Méndez Esparza's Here And There, Leos Carax's Holy Motors, Ang Lee's Life of Pi, Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone In Love, and Miguel Gomes's Tabu. These are joined by more new films I have I hopes for, foremost among them the first screen team-up between one of my favorite international directors Hong Sangsoo, and one of my favorite international performers, Isabelle Huppert: In Another Country

I'm also curious to see Nor'Easter and Fat Kid Rules The World, both first features from American directors Andrew Brotzman and Matthew Lillard, respectively. I believe these are the first films completed with some assistance from Lucas McNelly and his ambitious A Year Without Rent project (full disclosure: my roommates and I contributed a night on a couch to this project) to have public screenings in the Bay Area. There's also The Wall, which comes to Mill Valley after screening at the Berlin & Beyond festival this month, a fascinating Frisco-focused documentary called The Institute, and the annual offering from the prolific local legend Rob Nilsson, whose films rarely screen in San Francisco proper, even when they're made here. This one is called Maelstrom and is set in Marin, making MVFF an even-more ideal showcase than usual. 


Tales of the Night (Michel Ocelot, 2011)  courtesy Mill Valley Film Festival




Thanks to the festival's timing on the "awards calendar" there's always a certain amount of "Oscarbaition" at Mill Valley, and this year Ben Affleck is expected to be on hand to excite people about his upcoming Argo and David O. Russell will be here with Silver Linings Playbook. But I'm much more interested in an Oscar-ineligible animated feature, silhouettist Michel Ocelot's first 3-D venture Tales of the Night, which screened in Frisco once last year, in French with English subtitles. I missed it with some regret but won't miss the subtitles when I catch it dubbed into English at Mill Valley this year. A recent viewing of the otherwise-excellent Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (which comes to the Castro next month) made me realize I haven't yet trained myself to read words on one focal plane while taking in stereoscopic action at the same time. Thoughtful dubbing is usually less damaging to animation than live-action work anyway. Note that Robert Bloomberg's 3-D short How To Draw A Cat, which screens along with Ocelot's feature, is, contra the festival catalog, not made by young Croatian artists. There is an animation workshop as part of the MVFF Children's Filmfest, and the other features in this sidebar will be preceded by shorts, but labeling How To Draw a Cat as such was a publishing error.

With all the treats in store, it may be a bit disappointing to learn that all the above-mentioned films will be screening digitally rather than in 35mm prints. This is the reality of film festival exhibition for the present and foreseeable future, however, and although the main MVFF venue, the Rafael Film Center, still retains its 35mm projection capability, they understandably also want to show off their recently-upgraded digital projection systems. To festival director Mark Fishkin's press conference promise that the festival screenings will look much better than the clips shown did, I can only say: they'd better! I feel it's worth noting the handful of titles that I'm told will be sourced from actual film reels and not DCP or other digital formats: the painter/film director biopic Renoir, Brazil's Xinga (also a biopic), Polish thriller To Kill A Beaver, and two of the selections in the shorts program entitled Crosseyed And Painless. And two of the retrospective presentations as well: the screening of 
La Jetée that will accompany the October 6th (but not the October 8th) showing of Emiko Omori's tribute to its departed director, To Chris Marker, an Unsent Letter, and the October 7th 35mm screening of Yoyo, a 1965 comedy co-written by Jean Claude-Carrière, and directed by and starring the all-but-forgotten French clown Pierre
Étaix- a pair mentored and introduced by the great Jacques Tati. If 
Étaix's name doesn't ring a bell his face may if you've seen Fellini's The Clowns, Oshima's Max Mon Amour, Iosseliani's Chantrapas, Kaurismäi's Le Havre, or (not bloody likely) Lewis's The Day The Clown Cried.





Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012) courtesy Mill Valley Film Festival
With the studios' all-or-nothing digital push, 35mm prints are disappearing from festivals all over- not just Mill Valley but household-name festivals like Cannes and Toronto as well. This is purely speculation, but it may be that the main reason why this year's MVFF line-up seems stronger than usual is that distributors are more willing to let digital versions of their films play at a regional festival like this than they were willing to send one of their few 35mm prints to Marin in the days when celluloid was king. Small distributors are giving in to pressure to "go digital" just as commercial cinemas are, and the whole film ecosystem as we know it may be unrecognizable in a year or sooner. I'm told a touring 35mm print of Holy Motors will grace at least one local Landmark Theatres screen about a month after it plays digitally at MVFF, but this may already be the exception to the rule.

All I know is, I'm determined to see e.g. Like Someone In Love in Marin County next month, even if it is going to be shown from a Digital Cinema Package (DCP). And if IFC distributes a print of it to a local arthouse sometime this winter or spring or later, I imagine I'll happily pay to see it again there as well. I mean, it's an Abbas Kiarostami feature set in Japan. Of course I'm going to want to see it at least twice! Now, off to buy my ticket befpre it goes to "rush" status...