Sunday, June 24, 2012

Local Interest

Gramophone Video on Polk Street is set to close up shop; today is it's last day of selling its rental DVDs for $2.99 apiece. I don't usually get as sad over the loss of a video rental store as I do for the loss of a movie theatre, but Gramphone is different, for me. Its small size deceptively hid a collection that was as robust and diverse as any brick-and-mortar video store I've seen in this town with the exception of Le Video and possibly Lost Weekend, and it included some titles (some on VHS) that neither of the other two legs in this 'Frisco trifecta' of rental shops happened to carry. The coziness perhaps was what facilitated more friendships with staff and fellow regular customers there than I've made at other stores. At least I expect these friendships to last, even if the site of their formation doesn't.

As they began selling off their collection, I couldn't resist purchasing the long Out-Of Print World Artists DVD of Caveh Zahedi's In The Bathtub Of The World. I like to think I would've made the purchase even if I didn't have Zahedi on the brain, as I was working on an article on the former local filmmaker's latest video work The Sheik And I.  This was my favorite feature seen courtesy of the San Francisco International Film Festival this past spring (my second-favorite, The Exchange, has just been announced as part of the upcoming SF Jewish Film Festival, incidentally), and it's been echoing in my brain for weeks. My article was just published the other day at the Keyframe blog arm of streaming-video company Fandor, which includes two approximately half-hour Zahedi videos I Was Possessed By God and Tripping With Caveh, as part of it's online-viewing offerings. Yes I am aware of the ironies.

Do read the article and let me know what you think, if you have the time and inclination. I found it an endlessly fascinating and discussable film, although not everyone agrees. Notably, Frako Loden's recent round-up of SFIFF capsules (which also serves as reminders of summer arthouse releases like AlpsFarewell My Queen, and Found Memories) reveals she was no fan. Other worthwhile reading on The Sheik And I comes from Sean GillaneAdam Schartoff, David Hudson (with links, naturally) and, with an interview with Zahedi, the Documentary Channel Blog. I swear I had not read the latter when I completed my own article, so when both pieces touch on some of the same metaphors and topics it's purely coincidence. Or perhaps a sign from God- another title I'm not sure if I'd been able to track down without Gramophone Video.

More than six years ago, when I wrote a blog post about a favorite film from each of the last ten decades of Frisco Bay filmmaking, I named In The Bathtub Of The World as representative of the 2000s. Today I'd write that post a little differently, and might be more likely to include an experimental short such as one of the beautiful Nathaniel Dorsky films screening this evening at Pacific Film Archive on such a list. But a recent re-watch of my new (previously-viewed) DVD re-confirms it as a staggeringly ambitious and prescient feature. 
I've been thinking a lot about Frisco-based filmmaking recently, actually. I went to the Stanford Theatre last night, on the penultimate night of its Howard Hawks restrospective, to see, for the first time, Howard Hawks's 1964 comedy Man's Favorite Sport. I had never before heard that it was partially set in town, including several street shots and a scene at a revolving sky room bar, which seems to be modeled on the Fairmont Hotel's Crown Room. Perhaps it was even shot there?  I'm almost certain that stars Paula Prentiss and Maria Perschy (and perhaps, to a more eagle-eyed viewer, Rock Hudson as well) can be spotted in the just-prior scene ascending that hotel's famous Skylift external elevator. If so, Man's Favorite Sport joins Ernie Gehr's brilliant structural piece Side/Walk/Shuttle as a film that ought to be included on lists of films shot at the Fairmont. 

Side/Walk/Shuttle, for its part, is fresh in mind because its publicity stills are currently under glass at the Old Mint, along with "ephemeral" material from the Pacific Film Archive's collection of documents from the rich history of Bay Area avant-garde filmmaking and exhibition. Also included: a Tony Labat storyboard, flyers from film screenings by local organizations like SF Cinematheque, Film Arts Foundation, the SF Art Institute, and more. I was particularly interested to see original advertising from the notorious October 23, 1953 "Art In Cinema" series screening at the original SFMOMA, in which Christopher Maclaine's The End was shown to an unruly audience. The End is in fact not listed on the ad as it was a last-minute replacement for another film, but I immediately recognized the document thanks to the intense research Brecht Andersch and I did on The End prior to a screening I helped him put on last year.

Why are these objects at the Old Mint? They're part of an exhibit the San Francisco Historical Society is holding as a fundraiser for their project of turning the Old Mint into a permanent exhibition space. As a fundraiser, it's an exhibit put together on a limited budget, but with a great deal of creativity on the part of curator Miguel Pendás of the San Francisco Film Society, who quietly dazzles festgoers with his knowledge of local film locations at the Noir City festival each January. He's divided the Old Mint space into several themed rooms, including a room of silent-era filmmaking with creative input from David Kiehn of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, a room of nothing but noir posters from the personal collections of Noir City's Eddie Muller and the Telluride Film Festival's Gary Meyer, a photographic look inside local studios like Pixar and Lucasfilm, a room devoted to "Cars, Cops and Cocktails" which has tips for anyone wanting to know how to mix drinks imbibed in After The Thin Man, Days of Wine and Roses, or Zodiac, and more, including an Vistavision camera used to shoot Vertigo and full-size wax figures of Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon and Charlie Chaplin in A Jitney Elopement (shot in Golden Gate Park)Michael Fox and Frako Loden have written good overviews of the exhibition, which ends today. It's quite possible to take the entire thing in about an hour or so.

The PFA documents I described above were the centerpiece of a room devoted to independent filmmaking in San Francisco- a scratching of the surface, really, but one that also represents documentary filmmaking with a poster from Terry Zwigoff's Crumb, and major studio-distributed projects by independent-minded makers, represented by a poster from the version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers made by Philip Kaufman (who will, it's just been announced, introduce the screening of Wonderful Lie Of Nina Petrovna at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival next month). This room and the silent-era room were the most interesting to me. When I attended a press preview two weeks ago, not all of the displays were in place yet, so I was glad when returning to see the full exhibit this week, that Lon Chaney had been added to this particular room. Not only did he perform on San Francisco stages before his film career, and make films like Outside The Law and The Shock in town, but a dream sequence from his villainous vehicle The Penalty has him directing a crime wave from the steps of the Old Mint itself! Some things about the building have not changed very much since 1920, but I didn't see any obvious criminal masterminding on my excursion. Today is the last day of the exhibit. A perfect thing to do on the way to the Stanford to see Man's Favorite Sport (and its co-feature Rio Bravo) if you haven't yet.

I also recently attended a free program at the San Francisco Public Library hosted by Jim Van Buskirk, author of the useful but frustratingly incomplete book Celluloid San Francisco. An hour+ of clips from narrative and documentary films that make particularly interesting use of the Golden Gate Bridge as plot device or thematic signifier (not mere pictorial backdrop), this program was more completely satisfying than his book, and not only because it was free. He began with the 1936 Frank Borzage film Stranded, which includes plot developments centered around the worksite for the builders of the still-unfinished bridge, and ended with an extended battle film Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and crammed clips from dozens of films including Dark Passage, the Man Who Cheated Himself, The Love Bug, A View To A Kill, The Joy Of Life, and Monsters Vs. Aliens into the presentation, knowing when it best to provide audio commentary for the clip and when to let it play out un-intruded-upon. After the show there was ample time for a spirited conversation to spring up among the attendees. He gives his presentation one last time this month, on Wednesday at the Excelsior SFPL Branch

If free library screenings fit your budget perfectly, then you might want to know that more than 20 SFPL branches will be hosting DVD screenings of San Francisco-themed films throughout July. Titles include Flower Drum Song, The Lady From Shanghai, Time After Time, and The Social Network. If image quality is more important to you than price, the Castro Theatre is going to be screening a number of San Francisco films as part of its August celebration of its 90th year in operation. So far, only an August 1-2 booking of The Maltese Falcon (with the New York-set The Asphalt Jungle) has been announced, but rumor has it that there will be more announced soon. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

Adam Hartzell's Canadian Frameline

Of all the so-called "special interest" film festivals on Frisco Bay, there's none larger, more festive or more inclusive than Frameline, which began yesterday. This "Cannes of gay film festivals" builds its programming of films to appeal to a core audience of LGBT moviegoers, but invariably brings film programs that straight, cis cinephiles won't want to miss either. I'm personally most interested in delving into the New Queer Cinema retrospective, in seeing George Kuchar's final SF Art Institute "class film", Empire Of Evil at the Roxie. and in attending the Castro for the Iranian film Facing Mirrors, which my friend Michael Hawley calls "the Frameline36 film no one should miss." The Film On Film Founcation dutifully indicates which of the festival's screenings are to be shown on that dwindling festival format: 35mm. But another friend, Adam Hartzell, has got me thinking about another set of Frameline selections. Here's Adam: 

The embarrassment of cinematic riches San Francisco's larger festivals provide can be overwhelming at times.  In spite of that, I always appreciate the opportunity to self-curate a deeper festival focus nested within the larger mission of each festival.  And for the 36th year, Frameline presents so many different aspects of the Queer community on which to focus.  Hmmm, I could center my viewing on Intersex issues, the Bear community, or even the intersection of Queer folk and sports.  Instead, I chose my screeners based on country of origin.  And those who know me know I have more than a soft spot for Canada.

And Frameline has a spot for Canada in its closing film this year.  Cloudburst (Thom Fitzgerald, 2011) features the star power of Olympia Dukakis as Stella, an lesbian of the senior set who wears a cowboy hat but her back is anything but broken, because she won't take any shit from anyone.  And I choose to cuss because Stella never met a swear word she needed to censor.  As for her partner of 31 years, Dot (played by Brenda Ficker of My Left Foot), her language is more polite (and Irish-ly-lilted), but along with her vision being mostly gone, her bones are a bit more brittle, as evidenced by a vibrator-induced fall that leads to a broken butt.  This incident begins the power struggle with Dot's granddaughter who seeks to separate Stella and Dot.  As you can guess by my quick analysis of Stella, she won't let this happen, so she helps Dot break out of the nursing home and they head from Bangor, Maine to the Canadian border, (picking up a young, hunky hitchhiker on his way to Lower Economy, Nova Scotia), in order to get married with hopes this will provide a stronger legal grounding to contest Dot's granddaughter's control of Dot's final years.

The enjoyment of Cloudburst solely comes from the wicked pleasure of the vulgar dialogue given to Dukakis.  Sadly though, that's where the enjoyment ends.  One has to snip out these creative fits of curses and hold on to them as the film rides from one bit of otherwise choppy plot progression to another.  Not  even a great actress like Dukakis can save this from the lesser hands of the editing and direction.

But there are the two more Canadian films to choose from.  First, there's Margarita (Dominique Cardona & Laurie Colbert, 2012), but there's a review hold on that one, so I can't tell you that I fairly enjoyed it and how it provides an interesting opportunity for a critical frame from the POV of a bicycle seat.  The other is the best of the three, Daniel Roby's Funkytown, which proves that along with yogurtbagels, circusesprotests, and corrupt construction industries, the French Canadians do cinema way better than their anglophone compatriots (Egoyan, Cronenberg, and Maddin excepted, of course). 

Quebec Cinema continues to represent recent periods lavishly on screen. I know none of you saw it, because it was basically just my wife and I in the theatre during the Tiburon International Film Festival this, and pretty much every, year, but one great example of these Quebec period pieces (in this case the 1960s) brought to the Bay Area recently, was the powerful Michel Monty film Life Begins, about a boy dealing with his father's death by popping papa's little helpers. Funkytown recreates 1976, jumping between English and French because, as Roby told Bernard St-Laurent on the CBC's English language program on French Canadian culture, C'est la vie, Montrealers regularly jumped between languages back then. The film primarily focuses on two characters - Bastien (Patrick Huard of Bon Cop, Bad Cop), a radio DJ and host of a show called 'Disco Dance Party' who eschews his family responsibilities for the disco lights, dazzling drugs, and sexy ladies; and Tino (Justin Chatwin from the Middle of Nowhere), a young Italian Canadian carving out a space for his desires within the cultural confines of mandatory heterosexuality.

Other characters with considerable screen time include father-son owners of the 'first disco club in North America' The (later, thanks to the PQ, 'Le') Starlight, a has-been French disco star, a model turned fashion 'reporter' wanting a turn at musical stardom, and an early gay icon in Montreal's disco world.  Each of the characters are handled with enough depth to keep you from feeling they are tossed in as afterthoughts or poor editing choices.  The portrayal of Adriana the model, (played by real life Guess Girl model Sarah Mutch), is particularly refreshing.  When she is interviewing a Montreal fashion designer that doesn't know English, (and Adriana knows no French), Adriana doesn't come off as the cliched 'dumb blonde' but as someone way out of her league positioned merely because she's considered beautiful by the media.

That scene has the Montreal Olympic stadium as its backdrop, and Funkytown begins at the apex of Montreal's standing, the Olympics of 1976, then slowly follows the four years as Montreal's bills came due.  (Montreal didn't finally pay off those Olympic bills until late 2006.  For a long time, the Olympic Stadium, or 'The Big Owe', stood as signage for poor municipal decisions, such as the genius use of the stadium as a bureaucratic dystopia in Denys Arcand's The Age of Ignorance.)  This financial debt due serves as background for the moral/ethical debt due for many of the characters in the film's foreground. 

Something else that Adriana's scene underscores is the interplay between French and English in Montreal and how Roby uses this in his film.  As the interview with St-Laurent on the CBC notes, Roby's decision to mix-up French and English in the film was controversial in Quebec.  Yet I am happy he made this choice because there are moments, such as lovely scene where Bastien hopes to reconcile with his daughter, where the code--switching adds layers of how we negotiate intimacy and emotional connection through the languages we use with different people in our lives.
And what is a festival like Frameline but one expanding the language of cinema in speaking on topics about which we often feel forced to remain silent.