Thursday, May 31, 2012

Adam Hartzell: I Wish

Summer moviegoing in a city like San Francisco doesn't have to mean check-your-brain trips to the mall. Alternative screening venues abound in this town- their schedules linked on my sidebar a click away. I'll make special mention of the particularly strong programming at the Roxie, the Yerba Buena Center For The Arts, and the SF Film Society Screen over the next month or two, before mentioning a pair of special events featuring local musicians picking favorite locally-made films (Foul Play and The Conversation) at the Vogue this weekend. Also opening this weekend? A return-to-form from one of Japan's most internationally-esteemed directors right now, Hirokazu Kore-Eda. Adam Hartzell reviews the new film. All photos courtesy Magnolia Pictures:

It speaks to the power of cinema, and Hirokazu Kore-Eda's story-telling in particular, that the director's latest film had my wife and I changing our minds so quickly with such strong re-commitment.  The morning before we sat down to watch I Wish at the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival, we had made the difficult decision that traveling to see our family in Japan this summer probably wasn't the best for us financial-wise.  But once the credits closed the film, my wife was first to exclaim, and I was quick to second, "I really want to go to Japan now!"

This is, of course, exactly what the folks of jeki want to hear. jeki, (I've only seen it officially referenced in lower-case), is the East Japan Marketing & Communications advertising group, which is a subsidiary of the East Japan Railway Company.  And jeki partially funded I Wish.  If an international audience wasn't the intent, at least it can be assumed that they hoped to inspire their fellow Japanese citizens to travel to the most southwesterly island of Japan's archipelago, Kyushu.    Although my wife and I won't be heading that far south this time, (we went to Oita during our past visit), we are definitely heading to other prefectures along other railway lines after witnessing this engaging story of kids rallying around something bigger than themselves.

What was it that so transfixed us?  First, a quick plot summary.  The film follows two brothers who are amicably apart after the separation between their mother and father.   The two brother characters, older Koichi and younger Ryonosuke, are played by two real life brothers, Koki and Oshiro Maeda.   Koichi feels stuck in the ash-y air of Kagoshima where an active volcano (Sakurajima) brews and occasionally spews ash, resulting in daily habits particular to Kagoshima residents such as vigorously brushing off the ash upon arrival at school or wetting ones finger to see if ash collects on the upright phalange.   (My wife was born there and these Kagoshima gestures resonated with her memories of visiting her grandmother.)

It appears the younger Ryonosuke got the better deal in the bargain.  He is having the childhood most can only dream of, running around the more bustling Fukuoka with his posse of mostly girls, all while helping sell the merch at concerts for his dad's rock band.  Ryonosuke is truly the hyper one that walks ever so closely towards that annoying line, but never fully crosses it.  The plot consists of the possibility of the family reuniting and Koichi's attempts to assist in this re-cleave post-cleave by conjuring up a story that if you make a wish when two bullet trains pass each other, your miracle (the literal Japanese title of the film) will come true. 

Simply watching the wonderfully expansive train system of Japan and the freedom it provides is advertising enough for someone like me who is stuck in the backward-thinking highway-bounds of a car-dependent nation. But the director's deft story-telling makes sure I Wish is so much more than an ad for the railroad industry.  Kore-eda shows us the joy of watching kids throughout their day, wandering around their respective cities unchaperoned, creating adventures for themselves, from as complicated as their journey to make a wish to as simple as rushing to a favorite food stall.  To me, this was precious without being sickeningly kawaii

In this way, I Wish further solidifies Kore-eda's reputation of being one of the best directors of young actors and actresses.  What particularly transfixed me was just the importance of that less self-conscious time of childhood when if you can dream it, you can do it, at least in your head.  For my wife, it was nostalgia for what her adult self is no longer permitted to enjoy.  She and I can enjoy it vicariously now by watching our nieces engage in these privileges of youth, and by watching I Wish again when it is released this weekend at the Lumiere in San Francisco, Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley, and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

I cannot recommend I Wish enough, but it is important to point out something missing from the narrative that comes off chasm-atic if you are aware of it, as Japanese citizens would be.  

The opening celebration for the northern section of Kyushu extension noted in the film takes place on the 12th of March, 2011.  This should have been a momentous event that further solidified Japan's forward-thinking in establishing a railway network envied by many.  But the celebration was canceled by an incident of world-wide proportion that happened one day before the opening - the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that led to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.   Neither the earthquake, nor the tsunami, nor the nuclear disaster enters into the plot of I Wish.  This can be argued as a major omission.  Even though kids can go about their days without knowing much of the wider world, this was an incident of such devastation to the country it ought to have been mentioned somewhere.

And, arguably, it is indirectly mentioned.  But to flesh this out, I have to ruin the plot.  So your time here is done if you hold onto the view that 'spoilers' spoil a film.  (Recent evidence suggests otherwise.)

But here's some non-plot spoilers regarding how the new northern Kyushu lines connect the dots of the plot.  Koichi is so bummed about living in Kagoshima, he takes one of the things that bothers him about it, the ash-spewing Sakarujima volcano, and melds a fantasy in his mind where an eruption of Sakarujima will force his family to leave Kagoshima.  The wish he plans to plead for once the bullet trains pass is that Kagoshima be destroyed.  Now, Koichi isn't evil in that he hopes people die.  It's just that he's a kid, living in his often selfish world.  If he really thought his wish through, he'd realize folks might die in the process of living his fantasy. 

And Koichi does seem to realize that his dream is selfish, because he lets go of it and doesn't wish for a disaster when the trains pass.  He resolves to accept his present plight and will make the most of life in Kagoshima.  If we read Koichi's disbanded disaster as the triple disaster that actually shook Japan the day before the launch of the new northern Kyushu line, even though neither the earthquake, the tsunami, nor the nuclear plant disaster are mentioned, perhaps that is partly an unspoken motivation for Koichi to relinquish the disaster in his mind.  (The reasons the film presents are more pedestrian, but still virtuous.) 

Unfortunately, this reason for exclusion is not an argument I find too convincing.  It makes me feel like I’m stretching it.  If you are going to place a fictional world within the borders of a real-life event, it's hard to justify silence on a national tragedy.  (By the way, I am not implying at all that jeki encouraged such silence.  And let’s also keep in mind that the funding and story line were probably well solidified prior to the horrible disaster that inflicted Japan.)  Still, I wish Kore-eda would have found a way to make note of what's excised from the narrative.  Such is the only flaw in an otherwise wonderful film.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Best Fests In the West?

It's that time of year again. For The Love Of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon is holding its 3rd annual outpouring of blog-love for the integral activity of film preservation, hosted earlier this week by the Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy On Films, and now by This Island Rod. For the third year in a row, the Blogathon is raising funds for a San Francisco-based preservation non-profit. In 2010 funds raised from For The Love Of Film went to the National Film Preservation Foundation to preserve color-tinted versions of two hundred-year-old Western one-reelers, The Sergeant and The Better Man. Last year's donations went to the Film Noir Foundation to help pay for a new restoration of blacklisted director Cy Endfield's Try And Get Me, which is expected to be finished in time to screen at the January 2014(!!!) edition of Frisco's Noir City festival. Consider that a year-and-a-half early scoop (in the meantime, Endfiled's The Underworld Story screens at the Roxie next week). This year's blogathon is taking donations for, once again, the National Film Preservation Foundation, this time to make what remains of The White Shadow, a very early feature worked on by Alfred Hitchcock and until recently thought completely lost, available at the NFPF's online screening room with a musical score by Michael Mortilla.  Donate today to help further the world's knowledge of Alfred Hitchcock and British silent film!

Many of the blog pieces being written for this week's blogathon have focused on Hitchcock films and related subjects, and I considered writing about his Vertigo star Kim Novak, who will be returning to this city for a gala event June 14th to help kick off a week-long exhibition of Frisco Bay movie-making memorabilia at the Old Mint, put together by the SF Museum & Historical Society. Novak was in the news earlier this year, as you may remember, for objecting to The Artist's re-use of Bernard Herrman's iconic love theme from Hitchcock's love/hate letter to San Francisco. Well, less for objecting to it, than for using a very controversial word choice to express her objection. My own tweets at the time of the controversy expressed my feelings on the subject pretty well, I think.  I chalk the whole incident up to the usual Oscar-season mudslinging, and would never hold an isolated comment against an actress I admire as much as Novak, who is undoubtedly absolutely brilliant in Vertigo although I've barely seen any of her other acting work.

A more detailed appreciation of Novak in Vertigo will have to wait for another day, because I cannot resist using the blogathon as an excuse to talk about a few upcoming film festivals that feature preserved and restored films in their program. The NFPF screening room and the DVD sets it releases are wonderful boons to home viewing, but the importance of getting our film heritage in front of audiences in cinemas should not be understated. Sometimes the essential qualities of films made to be screened theatrically cannot be fully decoded in other settings. With the world of film exhibition under increasing pressure to conform to Hollywood studios' desires to turn cinema into a digital wonderland that threatens to be a digital blunderland and, as David Bordwell warns, a "freezing of the canon," film festivals may become one of the last remaining models for getting actual film prints on cinema screens. While certain local festivals have scaled back their retrospective screening components, it's heartening that others remain committed to giving past cinematic glories as much or more attention than the newest motion picture trends.

The National Film Preservation Foundation's aforementioned DVD sets cover a wide range of American filmmaking strands, from narratives of practically every genre and length to documentaries, animation, newsreels, home movies and even advertisements. But the bulk of these collections is given over to two general categories that tend to fall through the cracks for most commercial DVD-releasing enterprises: silent films and avant-garde films. Though their first set is perhaps their most eclectic in both themes and time periods, sets two, three, and five are almost exclusively devoted to silent-era filmmaking. The fourth set was given over entirely to this country's rich avant-garde filmmaking tradition, and the announced sixth set will be a sequel released next year. Correspondingly, there are three film festivals coming to Frisco Bay in the next couple months that celebrate silent films and avant-garde films: The San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, and Crossroads.

Since it begins first- this evening, as a matter of fact- I'll take on Crossroads for a few paragraphs first. The third annual initiative on the part of venerable experimental film exhibition organization SF Cinematheque to program a full-fledged festival of artist-made film and video, Crossroads will screen more than fifty works from around the globe between now and Sunday. Many of today's most interesting truly independent moving image artists have work in the festival, from established masters like Scott Stark, Ken Jacobs, and Saul Levine, to rising talents such as Linda Scobie and Sylvia Schedelbauer -- I've seen Scobie's Craig's Cutting Room Floor and Schedelbauer's Sounding Glass and am certain both with make a strong impression on Crossroads attendees. Max Goldberg has written a fine preview focusing mostly on new works getting their Frisco Bay premieres at the festival.

Of great interest to the preservation-minded, however, is tomorrow afternoon's program of films made by Chick Strand, the co-founder of Canyon Cinema, the 1960s exhibition predecessor to SF Cinematheque that still operates as a distribution company today. Strand's film Fake Fruit Factory was included on the fourth NFPF DVD set and is available for online viewing in their virtual screening room. Last December, two years after Strand's death in 2009, the film was included on the list of new entrants to the Library of Congress's National Film Registry along with far more famous titles like Bambi  and Faces. I think it's great that she now has a film on the registry list, but am still a bit baffled as to why that particular one was chosen, fine as it is. The Crossroads festival will be screening two of Strand's (in my book) far greater masterpieces, her joyous 1966 film Angel Blue Sweet Wings and her 1979 tribute to Anne Frank, Kristallnacht. Also screening is her rarely-shown 54-minute 1979 film Soft Fiction, which I have yet to see. The program is titled Woman With Flowers after the name of a film that was originally also slated to screen; that title has been replaced with her 1979 found footage film Cartoon Le Mousse. I don't know the reason for the switch, but it's interesting that Woman With Flowers was completed by the filmmaker in 1995, yet she never created a distribution print. According to the website of the Pacific Film Archive, which screened the film last October, the Academy Film Archive completed post-production on the film posthumously, but that "no creative interpretation or intervention was necessary."

Contrast that statement against what preservationist Bill Brand has to say in the liner notes to the recent Criterion Collection DVD release of Hollis Frampton's films, which have been scarcely seen on Frisco Bay screens in recent years. Brand insists that preservation of avant-garde films invariably involves creative work, as film companies discontinue the stocks filmmakers originally used, and digital transfers demand compromises and aesthetic judgments. A 16mm print of the late Frampton's 1969 film Lemon plays the Crossroads festival on Sunday evening along with two other experimental film "classics": Bruce Baillie's simple yet breathtakingly rich 1966 film All My Life, and Morgan Fisher's Picture and Sound Rushes. All three have been programmed to compliment a five-film set of films by Basque filmmaker Laida Lertxundi, who comes fresh from the Whitney Biennial and counts these works among her influences. I haven't seen ant of Lertxundi's films yet, but I marvel at the programming of Lemon at a time slot coinciding with a rare annular solar eclipseLemon is often remarked on as an erotic interpretation of a citrus fruit, but the way its lighting scheme gradually shifts over the course of seven minutes recalls the (apparent) movement of a familiar solar orb around our own globe. Assuming the program runs continuously without extended breaks for introductions, the (partial in San Francisco) eclipse ought to peak right about the time when the films finish. But you probably won't want to race out of the Victoria Theatre to peek at it, for two reasons: looking directly at the sun, even during an eclipse, is far more dangerous to the eyes than looking at an on-screen lemon, and Lertxundi has been flown into town to speak about her work following the screening.

On the subject of flying in to film festivals, although it's undoubtedly too late to book a cheap flight to attend Crossroads, there's plenty of time for out-of-towners to plan to visit the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which announced its full program last week but doesn't commence until mid-July.  You'll hardly be alone, as scores of visitors from around the country descend upon the Castro Theatre every summer to join the thousands of locals in love with what has become the largest silent film festival in the country (and probably the largest one anywhere in the world that has yet to screen an Alfred Hitchcock silent film. Operative word, I hope: Yet.)  Continuing the aviation thread, the festival opens July 12th with the new restoration of William Wellman's World War I dogfight saga Wings, which will be accompanied by a live score from Colorado's Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and by Foley effects from renowned sound designer Ben Burtt (Star Wars). Though Wings, which stars Richard Arlen, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Clara Bow and Gary Cooper, is well-known as the winner of the Best Production award at the first Academy Awards ceremony - and often retroactively designated as the first Best Picture winner - few know that the other award the film won that year, for Best Engineering Effects, was designated equally for the film's ground-breaking visual effects and for the live sound effects that accompanied its gala premiere screening in Los Angeles. Silent films are by no means equivalent to silent screenings; though the prints include no sonic information, they have almost always been screened with musical accompaniments, sound effects, narration, etc. The SFSFF brings some of the best international accompanists to provide music for all screenings, and will experiment with narration for its July 14 screening of the 1919 British documentary South, for which actor Paul McGann will read from the diaries of the film's hero, Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, while Stephen Horne provides piano accompaniment. 

Clara Bow is represented at the festival not only by Wings but by Mantrap, a 1926 Paramount comedy released on DVD last year as part of the NFPF's fifth box set of Treasures From American Film Archives. Stephen Horne, again, will reprise the piano score he performs on that DVD, but the film will be screened on a 35mm print. Indeed, the SFSFF has a reputation of using the best possible 35mm prints for their screenings, and nearly all of the films in the 2012 festival are expected to screen on 35mm- the exceptions being Wings, Ernst Lubitsch's last surviving German film, The Loves Of Pharaoh, and the color restoration of A Trip To The Moon which screens before a 35mm print of Buster Keaton's The Cameraman to close the festival July 15th. Presumably, as in the few (I count three) other instances when the SFSFF has used digital rather than film prints, there are not 35mm versions of these restorations available for them to screen. The festival has screened Wings in 35mm before, way back in 1999. That was the first time I'd ever heard of SFSFF, and I unfortunately couldn't make the screening and have yet to see Wings on anything other than VHS. I hope the new restoration is worth the wait, and the presence of pixels.

G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box is the other repeat selection in this year's festival, and although I saw it last time around (in 2005), I won't want to miss it this time either, as it's an extended version with about 10 more minutes than any other available, it will be shown in a 35mm print of a full restoration funded by Louise Brooks fan Hugh Hefner, and will be musically accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble, the Swedish accompanists who are quickly becoming many fans' favorites of the SFSFF stable of musicians. They will also accompany Mauritz Stiller's 1920 Erotikon (not to be confused with Gustav Machaty's 1929 film with the same name, which screened at the 2009 SFSFF), which I've been wanting to see for years. 

And there's more- much more. Musicians I haven't yet mentioned include Wurlitzer organist extraordinaire Dennis James, who will accompany Douglas Fairbanks (not Jean Dujardin) in The Mark Of Zorro and  The Loves Of Pharaoh. The Alloy Orchestra will premiere a new score for Soviet co-directing team Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg's Nikolai Gogol adaptation The Overcoat- another film I've had on my to-see list for quite some time. Keyframe recently published an interview I did with Alloy co-founder Ken Winokur, if you want to know more about why I'm excited by this pairing. And pianist Donald Sosin will play for no less than four film programs including Chinese auteur Sun Yu's well-regarded Little Toys starring Shanghai's answer to Greta Garbo, Ruan Lingyu. He'll also back Pola Negri in a brand new restoration of The Spanish Dancer, and my favorite Josef Von Sternberg silent film The Docks Of New York (which I wrote about upon its DVD release here), but I'm most excited to hear his collaboration with local ensemble Toychestra for a set of seven Felix The Cat cartoons. Felix is undoubtedly my favorite silent cartoon star, and Sosin's keyboard style seems especially suited to his antics.

Might as well mention the three other films, which I knew little or nothing about before the SFSFF program announcement: The Wonderful Lie Of Nina Petrovna starring Brigitte Helm of Metropolis, with music by Mont Alto, and two more for the versatile Stephen Horne: Stella Dallas (no not the Barbara Stanwyck version) and The Canadian. Not to leave out the program perhaps most pertinent to this blogathon, the annual "Amazing Tales From The Archives" program, free to the public, in which archivists from around the world present some of the latest, most fascinating finds for an audience of peers and newbies. I've met people who decideded to enter the field of film preservation after attending one of these enlightening sessions, and it was at such a presentation nearly two years ago that I was lucky enough to be among the first participants in a For The Love Of Film Blogathon to see the fruits of the project's first stab at fundraising: a brand-new 35mm print of The Better Man, with Horne doing his first improvisational run-through of the piano score he'd eventually record for the NFPF's fifth DVD set.

If I don't see you at Crossroads or at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, perhaps I will at the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, running June 29 through July 1st at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in the otherwise-sleepy town of Niles, California. This festival will also include a 35mm print of a film found on the fifth NFPF DVD set: Mack Sennett's The Tourists, starring Mabel Normand as a visitor whose stay in Albuquerque turns out to be longer and more exciting than she expected. And of a Clara Bow film: Helen's Babies, also starring Edward Everett Horton and Diana Serra Carey a.k.a. Baby Peggy (who, at age 93, will be in town for the festival). I've written about Niles and the unique screening venue for this festival before, and I usually make it out to their regular Saturday night screening series at least once or twice a year, even though it's not exactly simple to get there from San Francisco without a car. But I've never attended their biggest annual event. This year, as the festival celebrates its fifteenth year of existence, and the 100th anniversary of Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson's arrival in Niles to make some of the first cowboy pictures, I'm determined to attend at least one or two festival screenings. This year's line-up puts a particular focus on films made precisely 100 years ago, in Niles or elsewhere, including five films by Anderson, two by D.W. Griffith, and even one of the few feature length films made in this country that year: Charles Gaskill's Cleopatra.

But if you have a few bucks to drop on attending one or more of these festivals for your own enjoyment, why not also donate so that not only you, but anyone with an internet connection can benefit from film preservation. I just donated myself. I can't wait to see The White Shadow, through any legal channel available to me.