Thursday, January 31, 2013

The White Rose (1967)

WHO: Jay DeFeo, subject of a current SFMOMA exhibition which will be taken down in just a few days, is also the subject of this brief film, one of the greatest artist portraits I've ever seen.

WHAT: DeFeo's painting The Rose is among the most monumental art works created in San Francisco. She worked on it obsessively for nearly a decade, layering paint upon paint until it bulged off the canvas like a beautiful inflated gland on the wall. By the time a fivefold rent increase forced eviction from her second-story Fillmore Street apartment (a block up from the Clay Theatre) she had applied so many thousands of pounds of paint that removing the piece, which by now was as much sculpture as painting, required cutting away parts of the wall and bringing it down to street level by forklift. Her friend, assemblage artist and filmmaker Bruce Conner, documented her apartment, this surgical extraction of its most vital organ, and its visible effect on DeFeo, editing it into a seven-minute film with a soundtrack of Miles Davis's performance of the "Concierto de Aranjuez" from Sketches of Spain. The result is a masterpiece, both a perfect introduction for a newcomer to Conner's work and a piece that grows richer each time one views it.

WHERE/WHEN: The White Rose screens at SFMOMA's Phyllis Wattis Theater tonight as part of a 7PM program of Beat Era filmmaking that also serves as the opening of the 2013 SF Cinematheque season. It also screens, on its own, at the museum's Koret Visitor Education Center twice today, tomorrow and Saturday afternoons.

WHY: Whether you've already spent time with The Rose during SFMOMA's retrospective, or are planning to do so before it departs from view this Sunday (skipping this rare opportunity altogether is not an option), you will definitely want to watch Conner's film to enrich your perspective. Seeing it tonight as part of the Cinematheque program is for many reasons the optimal way to take it in. In addition to The White Rose, several key works made by other San Francisco Beat-associated artists during the year DeFeo began this painting (1958) will screen. Lawrence Jordan's Triptych in Four Parts, Christopher Maclaine's Beat, and Wallace Berman's sole film, begun in 1956 but like The Rose extended for about a decade after, and entitled Aleph after his 1976 death, are crucial works well-known to students of this era of truly independent filmmaking.

Poet ruth weiss's film The Brink came a bit later in 1961, and according to Kari Adelaide Razdow was shot on Super-8 around the San Francisco Bay Area that year. Local viewers ought to be able to recognize sites such as Baker Beach and Sutro Heights Park, the latter of which was also one of the locations which Brecht Andersch & I identified as used in Maclaine's 1953 The End. Like that film The Brink is anchored by a strong narration, in this case a recitation of a version of a poem of the same title that weiss had published in 1960. Whereas Maclaine is known for his filmmaking while his poetry languishes these days, weiss is fairly well-represented in discussions of Beat-era poetry, and has several books available at City Lights and at the San Francisco Public Library, but is relatively unknown as a filmmaker. Tonight represents a rare chance for a Frisco Bay audience to begin rectifying this, as weiss, now in her eighties, will appear along with her film at tonight's screening. She will also appear at a community tribute to Jay DeFeo this Saturday afternoon, also at SFMOMA.

HOW: I've been told that tonight's screening will be mostly from 16mm prints, including The White Rose. The afternoon screenings are digital video presentations however.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Sniper (1952)

WHO: Marie Windsor, MGM's one-time "New Joan Crawford", who ended up getting called "Queen of the Bs" because she featured in so many cheaply-made pictures after the studio dropped her. She's been immortalized in films noir such as Force of Evil, The Narrow Margin and The Killing, and is one of six women lovingly profiled in Noir City mayor Eddie Muller's 2001 book Dark City Dames. In The Sniper she has a supporting role.

WHAT: The Sniper is one of the first films I ever saw at a Noir City festival, the first one held in San Francisco in 2003, which was devoted entirely to (excuse the double entendre) shot-in-San Francisco movies. Imagine my surprise when the last name of Windsor's character was first revealed, and it was my own rather rare surname Darr, which I've never heard of a fictional character possessing, before or since. It feels like an honor to imagine such a lovely and talented chanteuse in my family tree (though my parents moved to Frisco after this half-noir, half social problem picture was released, so Jean must be from another branch of Darrs).

WHERE/WHEN: At the Castro Theatre twice today: a 1:30 matinee and a 7:00 evening show.

WHY: Though there probably won't be another theatrical showcase of Frisco Bay noir like the one held ten years ago anytime soon, Noir City annually sets aside at least one night at the Castro to showcase locally-filmed pictures. Tonight's that night, with a double bill of The Sniper and Blake Edwards' Experiment In Terror, which I also possess a personal connection to, as crucial scenes were filmed at my alma mater George Washington High School and the surrounding neighborhood. Both films are well worth watching no matter where you live, but are particularly notable for locals, as they utilize some of the best, most authentic location photography ever perpetrated on this city by Hollywood studios, meticulously documented at Reel SF. I feel especially confident saying this after recently spending an intense period of watching and rewatching San Francisco noir while writing an essay on the genre for the San Francisco entry into the World Film Locations series of books, which is expected to be published sometime later this year.

HOW: The Sniper will screen from a 35mm print, while Experiment In Terror will be showcased via a newly-premiering Digital Cinema Package from Sony.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Intruder In The Dust (1949)

WHO: Puerto Rico-born actor Juano Hernandez, directed by Clarence Brown.

WHAT: In 1968, Andrew Sarris published a book calling director Clarence Brown a "subject for further research." The same year, Kevin Brownlow wrote:
Clarence Brown is one of the great names of American motion pictures -- one of the few whose mastery was undiminished by the arrival of sound. Thanks to the widespread fame of his Garbo pictures Anna Christie, Conquest, and Anna Karenina, Clarence Brown is unlikely to become a neglected master. His Intruder in the Dust, a study of racial conflict in the South, is the finest picture ever made on that subject. His The Yearling has become a classic. Yet his films of the silent era have been completely forgotten. 
What a difference a generation makes. I'm probably not the only one these days who actually feels more conversant in Brown's silent films (particularly his wonderful The Goose Woman and Flesh and the Devil) than with his talkies. I'm very excited to see Intruder in the Dust, one of his most highly-acclaimed pictures and one that I can't recall screening anywhere nearby in recent years.

As for Juano Hernandez, you may remember him from his roles in Jacques Tourneur's wonderful drama Stars In My Crown, or in Michael Curtiz's The Breaking Point (seen at last year's Noir City). The latter film gets a multi-article spread in the Noir City Annual #5, which I mentioned yesterday, including an article specifically on Hernandez, written by Robert Ottoson.

WHERE/WHEN: 9PM tonight at the Castro Theatre

WHY: Lets face it. Mid-century Hollywood filmmaking was marked by a systematic exclusion of complicated and sympathetic portrayals of non-white Americans from the screen. The Noir City audience includes people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, but there would be something strange about spending ten days each year celebrating this era without ever commenting on this exclusion. One way of commenting is to showcase the rare exceptions, and Intruder in the Dust by all accounts qualifies. There were many noir films that used black actors in memorable roles that paid decent salaries, but these roles were usually very small, were often uncredited, and frequently reinforced stereotypes that helped contribute to feelings of white superiority. A seemingly-innocuous shot of African-Americans in a piano bar scene in the 1947 Repeat Performance, shown the other night, for example, was placed to illustrate how the adulterous romance of two white characters forces them to frequent locales where they'll never be discovered by their fancy friends from Broadway. I'm excited to see films tonight that treat black characters as more than set dressing. 

Intruder in the Dust may have been a commendable exception for its studio MGM, but it is paired tonight with a film that shows us what Hollywood simply would not touch when it came to on-screen portrayals of non-whites: the 1951 version of Native Son, starring the novel's author Richard Wright in the role of Bigger Thomas. The story could not be filmed in the United States at that time, so it was made in Argentina with a crew headed by respected French director Pierre Chenal (you may have seen his 1935 version of Crime and Punishment at the PFA last month). Released in a cut version (the full story is told in the same Noir City Annual #5), tonight will see the West Coast premiere of a new restoration of this rarity.

HOW: Both films will screen in 35mm prints.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Kiss Before The Mirror (1933)

WHO: James Whale, best known as the director of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein.

WHAT: I don't really know anything about this film, and I don't want to know, not before seeing it tonight. All I need to be excited is to know that its' the film Whale made between The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man. A fertile period for the director indeed.

WHERE/WHEN: 8:25 PM tonight only at the Castro Theatre.

WHY: Thirteen of the 264 pages of the handsome new fifth edition of the Noir City Annual, available for sale this week only on the mezzanine of the Castro during the Noir City festival, are devoted to an interview with festival founder Eddie Muller, conducted by Jesse Fankhausen. This interview is a must-read, not only for Noir City supporters, but for anyone interested in the last ten or so years of classic film exhibition in this country, and particularly here in San Francisco. There's more candid information about this festival's storied relationships with the Castro Theatre and other Frisco Bay venues it's been associated with, than I've ever seen committed to text.

At one point in the interview, Muller asks "why haven't other genres gotten this treatment?" It's a question I asked (completely independently- the interview was conducted over a year ago and I didn't read it until yesterday) in my article about last year's festival. I still am not quite sure of the answer, but at the risk of repeating myself, I'll observe again that one of my favorite things about Noir City is that its programming doesn't reflect a genre-purist approach. Noir is its main mission, but the festival is also a showcase for borderline noirs of interest to aficionados and deserving of wider exposure. Already this week's audiences have seen one film that falls in that border zone if not well beyond it: Curse of the Demon, a bona fide horror movie made by a director (Jacques Tourneur) and starring two actors (Dana Andrews and Peggy Cummins) frequently associated with noir

Despite having been made by Whale, I don't believe The Kiss Before The Mirror is a horror film, but nor does it fit anywhere near the traditionally-defined noir period of 1941-1958 or so, having been made in 1933. It's part of a what the festival is calling a "Pre-Code Proto-Noir Triple Bill" along with William Wyler's 1931 A House Divided and the ultra-obscure (only 5 imdb votes!) Laughter In Hell from 1933. I'm grateful Noir City is able to shine its spotlight on pre-code films for the second year in a row. For those of us who can't get enough of seeing the spottily-enforced censorship of the 1930-1934 period on the big screen, and who can't wait for the Roxie's next pre-code series to kick off in about a month, attendance at the Castro tonight is a must.

HOW: All three films tonight screen in 35mm prints.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

WHO: Silent film star Gloria Swanson was re-immortalized with this picture, and this time it stuck.

WHAT: Oh come on. Everyone knows this film, right? Even if you don't know it, you know it. Have you ever been "ready for your close-up"? Ever repeated the notion that in Hollywood "it's the pictures that got small"? Or that silent films didn't need dialogue because they "had faces"? Sunset Blvd. is one of those Hollywood classics that has seeped not-so-subtly into the popular culture. Even a canon-smasher like Mark Cousins is forced to contend with it. It's so ubiquitous, you may already feel a little sick of it. If that's happened, you know it's time to see it again with a fresh set of eyes. This is one classic that deserves every accolade and echo into our collective psyche it gets. Well, except for its transformation into an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical; no movie deserves that. 

WHERE/WHEN: At the Castro Theatre today only with two showtimes: 2:50 & 7:00 PM.

WHY: If you've been at the Castro this weekend you may feel a bit bruised and battered by the brutality, darkness & intensity of the films that have played so far. We've seen an adrenaline-fueled truck-driving duel that makes strong political points about competition, cooperation and corruption (Hell Drivers). We've seen a seedy-as-hell morality tale that whips the viewer into wanting the term "ex-convict" to be abolished, at least when applied to anyone resembling Lawrence Tierney's title character (The Hoodlum). We've seen two masterpieces from 1950, both of them based on true-crime events and both of them getting great mileage out of their application of a near-documentary style in certain sections (Gun Crazy and Try And Get Me). After all that, it's the perfect time in the festival to drop another 1950 masterpiece that's no less brutal, dark, or intense, but that applies these qualities a little further from everyday reality for most of us, focusing instead on the brutal, dark, and intense side of the Hollywood movie-making machine. Consequently, it's easier to enjoy Sunset Blvd. as escapism than it is to enjoy most of what we've seen so far that way.

HOW: Today's Sunset Blvd. screenings are the first time in eleven years that Noir City is trumpeting the world premiere of a restoration not presented from a newly-struck 35mm print but a newly-created DCP drive. Sunset Blvd. is one of four such digital presentations at the festival, also to include Experiment in Terror on Wednesday and the pair of 3-D films on Friday. For some this may feel like the beginning of the end of an era for a festival that has almost never utilized digital projection for anything other than its pre-feature montages, and a betrayal of this year's terrific poster image and slogan "keeping it reel".

But Noir City, through its preservation offshoot Film Noir Foundation, is proving its continued commitment to striking 35mm prints of noir films by world-premiering three brand-new 35mm restorations that would not have been completed without their efforts (including the gorgeous print of Try and Get Me shown last night, the excellent co-feature for today, Repeat Performance, and the closing film High Tide). Not only that, but last night the FNF's Eddie Muller was joined onstage by the sister of film preservationist Nancy Mysel, who died far, far too young this past June, to announce that a fund in her name is being set up to train new preservationists and preserve more films.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Se7en (1995)

WHO: Kyle Cooper designed the celebrated opening-credit sequence of David Fincher's second feature film.

WHAT: Se7en is an emotionally-draining, police-procedural structured horror movie that upped the ante for the serial killer genre a few years after the Oscar-sweeping Silence of the Lambs. There's no doubt that the unsettling opening-credits sequence did much to set the then-unique, but since often-imitated mood of the film. These titles also marked the first time many viewers (including me) took notice of scratching-on-film and other techniques associated with the world of experimental film, and its practitioners like Norman McLaren, Isadore Isou, and Stan Brakhage. Contrary to popular belief, Brakhage was pleased with the intentional homage to his work, and later praised Fincher as a director, calling Se7en "the most serious morality play I have seen on the screen since Orson Welles' Touch of Evil or The Trial. To learn more about how Cooper and Fincher arrived at these credits, check out this article and this video, but be warned that the latter reveals at least one late-in-the-movie surprise.

WHERE/WHEN: At the Pacific Film Archive. Ticket will say 8:00 PM, but the film will actually begin around 9:00 after an in-person discussion with Cooper.


WHY: That's right, Kyle Cooper will be on hand at the PFA screening tonight. How often do we get to discuss the art of motion picture title design with one of the most respected people working in the field? I can't recall it happening here recently. I hope that among the topics discussed will be the issue of appropriating imagery that serves a wholly non-narrative purpose to a fictional arena, in which it helps emphasize the fractured state of mind of a deranged character. (Experimental techniques are most frequently imported into mainstream cinema to aid representation of insanity or intoxication.) I don't know if Cooper sees himself as an experimental artist working in a mainstream setting, or a popular artist borrowing from the underground, but this should be a fascinating discussion and a perfect appetizer to seeing a rare 35mm projection of a seminal work of 1990s Hollywood. For those of us waiting for the new SF Cinematheque calendar to get under way later this week, this screening may be a perfect tide-over. And perhaps some Se7en fans who don't know Brakhage, et. al. will be inspired by the event to check out a world of filmmaking well worth exploring.

HOW: 35mm print from Warner Brothers.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Gun Crazy (1950)

WHO: Peggy Cummins, star of a couple dozen British and American films, three of which you'll have the opportunity to see in the next day or so.

WHAT: I'm generally loathe to discuss politics very directly on this blog, or even to discuss current events that have nothing to do with the unveiling of a new local film program. But sometimes elephants are too big to be contained in rooms.

There was no way that Noir City honcho Eddie Muller could have predicted, when selecting the opening film of the eleventh iteration of his much-beloved film festival, that the horrific Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut would have occurred a little over a month before the screening was to take place. While that real-life tragedy has sparked the (comparatively oh-so-slim) sliver of a silver lining, in the form of a relatively sustained national conversation about our nation's firearm obsession, that sees little sign of letting up any time soon, it might seem unseemly to some to enjoy a night on the town watching a film with a title like Gun Crazy. Maybe a film called Deadly is The Female (the title the studio hung on the film, unsuccessfully, before changing it back), but not Gun Crazy.

But if you've seen Gun Crazy recently, you may recognize this as a faulty impression. If ever there was an opportune time to take a fresh look at Joseph H. Lewis's cheaply-made lovers-on-the-run thriller, and realize just how clear-eyed it is about the dangerous allure guns hold for many people in this country, now is it.  In fact, it wouldn't be so bad for Gun Crazy (which was, in it's day, a flop, but is now the very definition of a cult classic) to play a part in the current national conversation.

WHERE/WHEN: 8:00 PM at the Castro Theatre tonight. Arrive as early as 7PM for an hour of pre-film entertainment, not to mention better seating options.

WHY: The real reason to see Gun Crazy tonight, of course, has nothing to do with Sandy Hook and everything to do with Peggy Cummins, who is just phenomenal in the film, and who will, at age 87, be here in person, flown in from London for an onstage conversation after the screening. How great is that? Two more Cummins films will screen tomorrow afternoon: the chilling and brilliant Curse of the Demon (also known as Night of the Demon) and the somewhat lesser-known Hell Drivers, but I don't believe she's expected to appear at those screenings.

HOW: 35mm print, the way all but four of the Noir City offerings this year are expected to screen.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

I Only Have Two Eyes 2012

It's time to present my annual survey of cinephiles' favorite repertory and revival film screenings at Frisco Bay venues. This is one of my favorite uses of my blog -- a way to collectively honor the entire chain of people that go into the creation of a meaningful cinema culture. The filmmakers (some long-dead) who originally produced these works. The archivists over the years who kept them safe for the current and future generations to appreciate, and in many cases performed important restoration work to make sure they look as their makers intended. The specialty distributors (or the increasingly-marginalized specialty distribution arms of major studios) who make them available for theatrical booking, sometimes after going to great expense to strike brand-new prints. The non-profit festivals and screening venues (along with a few for-profit businesses, usually small and family-owned rather than big and corporate) that take risks with their programming choices to ensure that there's a healthy alternative to the Hollywood mainstream on local screens. The projectionists and other theatre workers who help ensure that the presentation of these films maintains, or even improves upon, the standard of care displayed by the other links in this chain. And last but not least the moviegoers themselves, who help fund all the above activities with their box office dollars and cents, and whose enjoyment and intellectual stimulation is arguably the whole meaning of the entire enterprise.

I've done this for five years in a row before now, and I'm always amazed at the number of different films and venues that get mentioned by my generous contributors. I really appreciate the time they've taken to reflect upon their cinematic year and share it with anyone who happens upon this blog. Here's the list of contributors:

Adam Hartzell, writer for and many other sites
Rob Byrne, who blogs at Starts Thursday.
Ryland Walker Knight, writer and filmmaker whose web presence has a hub here.
Jonathan Kiefer, a film critic whose reviews are collected at
Victoria Jaschob, freelance writer and Event Planner for the SF Silent Film Festival.
David Robson, proprietor of the House oF Sparrows.
Lincoln Spector, the man behind Bayflicks.
Jesse Hawthorne Ficks, the mastermind of MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS.
Jason Wiener, who frequently Watches Movies.
Michael Hawley, who blogs at film-415.
Maureen Russell, cinephile and film festival volunteer.
Ben Armington, Box Cubed chieftain, Roxie pinch hitter, furtive film-goer.
Frako Loden, film studies teacher and Documentary magazine contributing editor.
Terri Saul, cinephile, writer and visual artist.
Lawrence Chadbourne, long-time video collector and recent tweeter.
Carl Martin, film projectionist and keeper of the Bay Area Film Calendar.
Kurtiss Hare, who operates Cinefrisco.
Mark Wilson, an artist/filmmaker who features in an upcoming East Coast exhibition.
Brian Darr, a.k.a. me.


The Two Eyes Of Brian Darr

Thanks for indulging my annual round-up of Frisco Bay cinephiles' favorite repertory/revival screenings of 2012. I hope you've enjoyed reading what I've posted here so far. The full list of contributions can be found here

I'm not quite done; this year, I'd asked respondents to name one brand-new film that they saw in a local venue in 2012, in which something about the venue conspired with the film to make for a particularly memorable and enjoyable experience. Not every contributor responded to this request, and  I decided to collect all the responses to this question into a single post, which I'll be putting up soon. 

But for now, here is my own list of ten favorite films from our cinematic past, revived on Frisco Bay cinema screens in 2012, in the order I saw them:

Underworld USA
2012 started off like gangbusters, literally, with the 10th Annual Noir City festival at the Castro Theatre, and particularly with this late (1961; some would say post-) noir by the iconoclastic Hollywood figure Sam Fuller. It immediately became my new favorite Fuller film, as it expresses both his cynical view of the connections between American crime and business, and his tabloid-headline expressionist approach to cinematic language extremely authentically. I now have the perfect starting recommendation for anyone wanting to explore the black-and-white precursors to Scorsese's & Coppola's gangland epics.

Four Nights Of A Dreamer
At the Pacific Film Archive's near-complete Robert Bresson retrospective I was able to plug several of the most yawning gaps in my experience with the French filmmaker. Undoubtedly, his films are challenging and I must admit I've in the past had better luck approaching an initially satisfying comprehension of them in the home video arena, with its pause and rewind buttons, than in cinemas. But these films were made for theatres, and for the first time I finally felt I had a cinematic communion with a Bresson print, truly sensing myself on the right wavelength with the film's every move. Perhaps it's because this 1971 film is Bresson's most impressionist work, or perhaps because I was previously familiar with his source material (Dostoyevsky's White Nights.) At any rate, I'm especially likely to treasure this rare screening as Four Nights of a Dreamer is reputedly troubled with rights issues holding up a proper DVD release. 

Wagon Master
When Quentin Tarantino made recent comments about hating John Ford, both the man and the filmmaker, for his racism, I instantly thought of the Ford films which (unlike, say, Stagecoach), present a far more complicated picture of his racial attitudes than is often acknowledged. Consider Fort Apache, which illustrates the folly of the U.S. Cavalry treating Chiricahuas as nothing more than an enemy army, or The Searchers, in which John Wayne portrays a racist as a kind of victim of his own psychotic, narrow hatred of The Other. Having seen it as recently as March at the Stanford Theatre, I thought of Wagon Master as a vessel for Ford's most explicitly anti-racist statement of them all. The scene in which a Navajo (played by the great Jim Thorpe) is translated (by the late Harey Carey, Jr's character) to proclaim that white men are "all thieves", might not be so remarkable if it weren't for Ward Bond's sympathetic character's agreement with the sentiment. But race is only a part of what this grand, lyrical, often heartbreaking 1950 film is about. Its band of travelers, each holding diverse values and goals but all sharing in the hardships of the road, is a beautiful microcosm for the tolerance and compromise we must learn to cultivate to exist harmoniously in this world.


Insiders have been indicating for a couple years, that we are now seeing the final days of film-as-film screenings. Some people have suggested that the film reel might make a resurgence as did the vinyl record did even after tapes, compact discs and ultimately mp3s threatened to wipe it out. I'm not sure if that's possible, but if it's going to happen we may need to see more creative uses of the film projector in order to realize that its operator (the projectionist) can be an artist equivalent to a great DJ. 2012 was a big year for me to experience multi-projector performances, from seeing the cinePimps and (full disclosure: my girlfriend) Kerry Laitala at Shapeshiters in Oakland, to a dual-projector ephemera duel between Craig Baldwin and Stephen Parr at the Luggage Store, an event poignantly held on the day Andrew Sarris died. Though this face-off had me imagining a beguiling future in which curator, performer and auteur become fused into one role, even it couldn't hold a candle to the Silent Film Festival's Paramount Theatre presentation of (to my knowledge) the first film foray into multi-projector "performance" spectacle: the final reel or so of Abel Gance's Napoléon, which I wrote about here. Though the three projectionists involved in this event were performing an act of 85-year-old reproduction and not new creativity, the precision of their coordination is something any performer might aspire to if they want to truly set audience's eyes agog. 

Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle
Too many of the locations for these "best of 2012" screenings sadly sit dormant already in 2013. New People/VIZ Cinema is one; the year saw the end of the San Francisco Film Society's experiment with turning it into a year-round screening venue. A week-long engagement of this delightful Eric Rohmer film was a real highlight of the year for me; the fact that it's gone unmentioned by other "I Only Have Two Eyes" contributors helps me understand that the state-of-the-art venue never was able to catch on as a repertory venue. Surely I'm not the only one who would consider this 1987 comedy about two young Frenchwomen with opposing but somehow complimentary backgrounds (made piece-by-piece while Rohmer was waiting for the right weather/light conditions for The Green Ray, which SFFS double-billed it with) to be among his high-water-marks, despite its episodic nature. Can't we consider the collections of A.A. Milne to be masterpieces? Mightn't The Martian Chronicles be as great a work as Fahrenheit 451

Land of the Pharaohs 
Here's where I really go out on a limb- or do I? I saw a lot of very great Howard Hawks films last year, thanks to hefty retrospectives at the Pacific Film Archive and the Stanford Theatre, but none made such a surprisingly strong impression as this film maudit did on the latter screen. It's the director's 1955 take on Ancient Egypt and the building of the Great Pyramid. I cannot help but wonder how many of the critics, historians, and cinephiles who continue to perpetuate its reputation as the one time the versatile Hawks took on a genre he couldn't handle, have seen it projected in 35mm on a big screen, as it was clearly made to be seen. Though the director was reportedly none-too-fond of it, his frequent screenwriter Leigh Brackett once went on record calling it one of Hawks's greatest films. Whether or not I'm willing to go quite that far on only a single viewing, I feel certain that seeing this visually stunning story of hubris and political machination unfold in Cinemascope above my eyes was one of my greatest film-watching experiences of the year.

Five Element Ninjas
"Someone like Jean-Luc Godard is for me intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung fu film." I don't wholly endorse this quote by Werner Herzog, as I love Godard (on most days, more than I do Herzog), but I can't deny that I got even more pleasure and maybe even more intellectual stimulation from watching this 1982 Chang Cheh tale of vengeance for the first time at the Roxie than I did from rewatching Week End at the Castro earlier in the year. Chang's output is more uneven than Godard's but his best films, and this is one of them I reckon, are as excited about the possibilities of cinema (here he gets some very eerie effects out of fish-eyed pans, and has a simple but brilliant solution to emphasizing ninjas' skills at silence) and steeped in complicated codes (in this case numerology and Chinese-style alchemy) as any canonized art film. I hope hope hope that collector Dan Halsted makes very many future visits to town with more of his rare Hong Kong 35mm prints in hand.

La Cérémonie
Another screening of a brutal masterpiece by a director with the monogram CC. Here it's Claude Chabrol directing Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert to the hilt in a slow-boiling tale of (mostly) quiet class warfare in a French village. There's a methodicalness to Chabrol's depiction of wounded psyches in a feedback loop hurtling toward catastrophe that makes this 1995 film seem like a model for the clinical works of Michael Haneke or Bruno Dumont. But nothing I've seen from either of those mens' ouevres quite approaches what Chabrol is able to coax out of Bonnaire and Huppert here. Like many local cinephiles I frequently find Mick LaSalle infuriating, but I'm so glad his recent book publication created the excuse to play this as part of a Roxie (and Rafael) series of actress-centric French films.

Only Yesterday
It was with great pleasure and a bit of wistfulness that I took nearly-full advantage of the Studio Ghibli series that played this fall at Landmark's Bridge and California Theatres, catching up with all the films that I'd never seen before (except one, My Neighbors the Yamadas) and revisiting most of those I that had. The pleasure is obvious to any fan of Hayao Miyazaki and his cohort; nearly all of these films are wonderful, unique blasts of color in motion, with not-too-saccharine stories that stick with you for days and weeks and months after viewing, even when in such a near-marathon viewing situation. The wistfulness comes from the fact that the Bridge seemed already on its last legs as a viable Frisco Bay venue, and in fact announced its closure a couple months later, and that Berkeley's California Theatre was on the verge of decommissioning its 35mm projection equipment in favor of all-digital equipment shortly after the series ended. Also from the fact that I knew that with this series I no longer have any more unseen Miyazaki features to view for the first time (until his next one anyhow). But to mitigate this, this series turned me into a fan of fellow Ghibli director Isao Takahata (who also has an upcoming film), largely on the basis of my admiration of his 1991 adaptation Only Yesterday, which I saw at the Bridge. As much as I love Miyazaki's fantasy mode, Takahata's realistic approach here is in some ways more impressive; he creates two totally distinct yet believable palettes with the lush rural setting of its lead character's personal awakening, and the more subdued watercolor-style of her extensive childhood memory flashbacks. He even bucked anime tradition in his voice casting, built around the decision to record dialogue before animating rather than post-dubbing as is Japan's animation norm. The result is a film reminiscent in beauty and theme of Kenji Mioguchi's lovely 1926 Song of Home.

Sonata For Pen, Brush and Ruler 
Last but not least, another kind of animation seen in a (less-sadly) decommissioned venue, the Exploratorium's McBean Theatre, a shiny-ceiling-ed dome inside the Palace of Fine Arts that hosted a wonderful array of screenings over that museum's long stay in that cavernous venue. The Exploratorium is gearing up to move to a new location on Pier 15, and promises to have a made-to-order screening space. But no matter how wonderful it is, I know I'll miss certain aspects of the old McBean, and I'm so thankful that the museum's Cinema Arts department hosted a short series of Canyon Cinema films during its last few months open, as a kind of goodbye. I was able to catch the first and third of these programs, and loved getting a chance to see rarely-shown pieces by Alan Berliner, Gary Beydler, Stan Vanderbeek, John Smith (whose films I also got to see at PFA in 2012) and more. But the most astonishing of these was in the December program: Barry Spinello's 1968 Sonata For Pen, Brush and Ruler. Spinello is a painter and experimental musician, but the 16mm film strip serves as his canvas and master-tape. I'd been impressed by a few of his later works before (one of them, Soundtrack, screens at the PFA shortly with the artist in attendance) but Sonata is so exhilaratingly expansive, so joyfully elaborate, and so recognizably the product of one artist's immense effort that I now have a clear favorite of his films. As he once wrote: "It is my brain, and for ten minutes I expect (I hope, if the film is successful) that the viewer's brain functions as my brain." I think it does.

The Saddest Music In The World (2003)

WHO: Directed by Guy Maddin.

WHAT: An almost indescribable film about a Winnipeg brewery owner (Isabella Rossellini) who stages a contest between international musicians to decide which performs the saddest melody (thus the title), in hopes of promoting beer sales as the Prohibition era comes to an end. Her former lover Matt McKinney arrives with his new girlfriend (Maria de Medeiros, pictured above) to represent the United States in the competition, but things get complicated when his father and brother appear to represent Canada and Serbia, respectively. It's one of Maddin's most accessible features.

WHERE/WHEN: 7PM tonight at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.

WHY: Hard to believe it's been nearly 10 years since Saddest Music In The World was completed and released onto an unsuspecting public. Which means it's been almost 9 years since the PFA became the site of its first Frisco Bay public screening, as part of the 47th San Francisco International Film Festival. Since then the venue has periodically brought it back, but never before with the sort of hullabaloo promised for tonight's screening, which will include beer provided by Pyramid and a live musical performance (presumably not during the film- this is not one of Maddin's neo-silents), all emcee'd by Peter Conheim. Whether you've never seen this on the big screen before, or whether you're due for a revisitation to the Muskeg Brewery, when could there be a better time than now?

HOW: 35mm print from IFC Films.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Two Eyes Of Mark Wilson

If you didn't attend some wonderful repertory/revival film screenings in 2012, you missed out. As nobody could see them all, I've recruited Frisco Bay filmgoers to recall some of their own favorites of the year. An index of participants is found here.  
The following list comes from Mark Wilson, an artist/filmmaker whose work will be included in Gallery Bergen's upcoming exhibition proto-cinematic investigations.

In 2012, it became positively clear that there are now suddenly far fewer opportunities to see 35mm prints, especially from the catalogs of major studios.  This impending scarcity of projected prints influenced many of my film going decisions this year, as one could no longer be assured that that certain films would come around again, to be presented in the medium they were made to be viewed.  I'm not anti-digital, but I feel that works made as film should be shown as film. Digital shouldn't try to imitate and look like film and to that end, it has a long way to go before growing into its own as a medium. I feel digital translations of films are a useful tool for preservation and study, but not a satisfactory cinema experience. There is another essential quality of cinema that needs to be preserved as well, since it's one we truly cannot afford to lose... the experience of community around cinema, going out to see films with friends, sitting among strangers, and often afterwards discussing the works face to face.  Many of the epiphanies that I've had around a film, how the medium makes its meaning, why a director has made an unusual decision, have often been sparked by an observational fragments spoken by others in conversation, which resonate alongside other fragments I've observed, leading to a fuller understanding of the work.  Many of the programs I've attended last year were presentations by organizations such as the Pacific Film Archives (PFA), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), San Francisco Film SocietyArtists' Television Access (ATA), and San Francisco Cinematheque.  These organizations often not only bring us together as a community to view works, but regularly put us in the same room and in dialogue with the artists who have created the films we view.  Artists' Television Access and San Francisco Cinematheque have been doing this as part of their  mission for decades. If you're unfamiliar with either, they have been around, waiting for you to discover the community they offer.  Both organizations are quite small and in need of the support of open-minded cinema enthusiasts, if they're to continue their mission and to grow in a rapidly-changing San Francisco.


Everything you may have read or heard about the greatness of the Silent Film Festival's presentation of Napoleon, is to be believed.  I'm sorry if you missed it, because its way at the top of my list of Bay Area film experiences in 2012, and not exclusively for the film, and the accompanying live orchestral score, but also largely in part for way in which the event fully awakened the Paramount Theater itself... an art deco jewel of a film palace brought to life in the name of Cinema.  Napoleon was a complete experience, a film that took you back in time, to the French Revolution,  presented in a vessel powered by the anticipation, excitement, and energy of those in attendance, transporting us back to an age when Cinema was monumental.

Time, or the questioning of our perception of it anyway, was the theme of several films that make my list for 2012.  Chirs Marker's La Jetee at SFMOMA (as well as his Sans Soleil at PFA), prompted another sitting with Vertigo, when the Castro presented it in 70mm.  There was also a Sunday afternoon at ATA when the Right Window Gallery celebrated the 20th anniversary of Anne McGuire's video Strain Andromeda, The a shot-by-shot, end to beginning, re-sequencing of The Andromeda Strain.  This wasn't exactly a screening of the piece, rather a re-presentation of its themes through Ed Halter reading his new essay about the work, and an exhibition of recent watercolors by McGuire, the Square Spiral Series... applications of small squares of color arranged in patterning reminiscent of the spiral of time seen in Vertigo's opening credits.  The first fifteen minutes of the video was also shown (or the last fifteen minutes of the original, if you prefer...)


In 2012, I had the opportunity to thoroughly immerse in retrospectives of filmmakers whose works I make it a point to see every single time they show (simply because it isn't often enough.) Robert Bresson, Nathaniel Dorsky, and Hayao Miyazaki.  Each of these directors create works one can see many times over and still make new, sometimes startling discoveries within.

The Bresson series ran at the PFA, I'd seen all of the works, even the rare prints, more than once, and most many times...  the surprise film for me this time around was the The Devil Probably, not one of my favorites of his prior, but with Bresson sometimes deeper understanding of the work registers more forcefully after a few viewings (later in the year i saw this film twice again in the final days of the San Francisco Film Society's operation of the New People Cinema in Japantown.)

The Pacific Film Archives also presented Afterimage: Three Nights with Nathaniel Dorsky... as three consecutive Sunday evening programs in June, a time of year when a 7:30 start time in Berkeley feels like the late afternoon, a perfect setting for the contemplation of ten films by Dorsky, all made in the past ten years, (programmed in reverse chronological order I should add.)  Compline is the title I'll single out here, Dorsky's last kodachrome film of several decades of work with the stock, in full command of the color palette, contrasts, density, and everything magical that Kodachrome had to offer.

The Studio Ghibli festival featuring most all of Miyazaki's feature length animation work was a summer event that sort of slipped under the radar, yet provided film goers opportunities to see all the works presented in 35mm.  Those screenings were my last visits to the now closed Bridge Theater in San Francisco.  The series repeated the following week at the California Theater in Berkeley.  Porco Rosso has been the favorite of all these works ever since I first saw it on 35mm.  Seeing this film projected on a big screen is essential to appreciating what Miyazaki is doing in animating the crimson red seaplane, its form rendered from all angles as it twists and turns, gliding to and fro against backgrounds of clouds and blue sky, shown from a vantage point which itself is continuously in motion to the degree to which it all nearly becomes abstraction.


There were notable in-person visits to the San Francisco Bay Area by experimental filmmakers that were the subject of two- or three-program surveys of work.  David Gatten from Colorado/North Carolina accompanied a touring mid-career retrospective of his films curated by the Wexner Center for the Arts.  In person, Gatten is an excellent storyteller... in particular, a ghost story that he shared, served to illuminate his work, Secret History of the Dividing Line.   PFA and San Francisco Cinematheque at YBCA co-hosted surveys of works by Rose Lowder from France, and by Gunvor Nelson from Sweden.   After her screening at YBCA, Lowder shared images of hand drawn charts, which represented field notes of her intricate film making processes, providing insight to the single frame, multiple pass, in-camera, checkerboard technique used to create film images, such as those of sailboats weaving through a field of red poppies, seen in Voiliers et Coquelicots. Nelson's visit was a return, as she had taught influentially at the San Francisco Art Institute for several decades.  Her work is often built around dense layers of personal language, ensuring there'll always be new things to discover in subsequent viewings.  Nelson's clear, delicate, and mischievous sound work, exemplified in Red Shift, has few peers in the realm of independent filmmaking.  


Barbara Loden's Wanda, screened at SFMOMA as part of their Cindy Sherman Selects series, was shot on 16mm reversal, intended for 35mm release, giving the film a gritty, yet vibrant look, perfectly befitting the narrative.   The print was recently restored directly from the original 16mm reversal materials.  Ernie Gehr's Side/Walk/Shuttle is my favorite film of all time, and I got a good look at it again this past year at the PFA in a new 35mm preservation print (it was originally filmed and presented in 16mm.)  Nineteen-nineties San Francisco has never looked sharper... gravitationally, precariously, clinging to the earth.  Without the technologies of digital, we wouldn't have a hand-colored version of Georges Melies' Trip to the Moon, to look at, so it seems appropriate to cite the Silent Film Festival's digital presentation at the Castro Theatre.  The projection's sharpness of image and richness of coloring seemed perhaps hyper-accentuated, yet properly serving as a reminder of what material we were actually looking at. This translation took little away from Melies' masterpiece (sadly I missed a subsequent presentation of a 35mm print of the restoration at the same theater.)  This year, for the I Only Have Two Eyes project, Brian also invited us to write about one new film wherein some aspect around the presentation worked with the film to create an enhanced cinema experience.  For me it was Jerome Hiler's Words of Mercury, screened in the San Francisco International Film Festival's experimental shorts program Blink of an Eye.  At the PFA, the camera original reversal film was projected, meaning that the very same material that was exposed in the camera was projected to the screen.   From reflected light through camera lens to film crystals, then electric light through film and projector lens to screen...  immediate, and revealing of a stunning spectrum of colors that could be recorded through the layering of exposures on film emulsion.  Inconceivably, that very Ektachrome stock used to make this work, would be discontinued at the year's end.


This year I get to write about one of the highlights of my Bay Area film-going experiences of 2011, Mission Eye & Ear.  A series that was organized by Lisa Mezzacappa with Fara Akrami and presented at Artists Television Access, three programs of newly commissioned works, pairing Bay Area composer/musicians with their experimental filmmaker counterparts.  The programs in 2011 were spread throughout the year and because the works were new then, I couldn't list them in last year's contribution to Two Eyes, however, for 2012 I can list this past November's all-day reprisal of the series at YBCA, part of Chamber Music Day events.  All the efforts were amazing, but I felt the highlights were Konrad Stiener's The Evening Red with music by Matt Ingalls, and Kathleen Quillian's Fin de Siècle scored by Ava Mendoza (who also deserves mention for her 2012 colloaboration with Merrill Garbus and tUnE-yArDs, in scoring a program of Buster Keaton shorts for SFIFF.)  I mentioned community at the beginning of this post, and for me this series exactly represents the best of what that means here in the Bay Area.  I've attended and followed performances and work by most of these composers and musicians of the local experimental improv scene for over a decade, and for more than two decades have attended experimental film programs in the Bay Area.  It was incredibly satisfying to experience these new works arising from a collaborative meeting of these two communities of artists.

Daisies (1966)

WHO: Directed by Vera Chytilová.

WHAT: Perhaps the most energetic, formally experimental, and socially/politically confrontational film in the Czech New Wave canon (which is saying something), Daisies is an influential film, frequently described as a feminist one, that's also a great deal of anarchic fun. Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová play a pair of teenagers, both named Marie, with such charismatic abandon that even when they're behaving insufferably or being photographed through distancing color-filters, we can't help but want to see what they'll get up to next. Though the occasional shots like the above one, in which they don't appear, are among the most innovative and beautiful in the film.

WHERE/WHEN: Today only at 3:15 and 7:00 PM at the Castro Theatre.

WHY: For the past week or so my blog may have seemed to be at cross-purposes, as I continue my project of writing a short daily blurb (like this one) about an upcoming screening, while at the same time unveiling the results of my annual "I Only Have Two Eyes" collaborative survey of the best of last year's repertory and revival cinema. For once, the two purposes line up, as an opportunity to see Daisies, which was included on loyal IOHTE contributer Maureen Russell's 2012 list, has already cropped up in 2013. If you're on the fence about attending the Castro today, take a look at her other choices and see if her taste might be a good barometer for your own potential enjoyment.

HOW: In a recently-struck 35mm print on tour from Janus, on a double-bill with Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot Le Fou.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Two Eyes Of Kurtiss Hare

If you didn't attend some wonderful repertory/revival film screenings in 2012, you missed out. As nobody could see them all, I've recruited Frisco Bay filmgoers to recall some of their own favorites of the year. An index of participants is found here.  

The following list comes from Kurtiss Hare, who has laid out his selections far more attractively at his own tumblr blog, but has allowed me to reproduce text here as well.

Bresson, Bresson, Bresson. Thanks to the series Susan Oxtoby coordinated at BAM/PFA, Keith Arnold’s work at The Castro and the programming crew at SFFS, I was able to see a number of life-altering Bresson films this year. This is not hyperbole. Starting with Au Hasard Balthazar in January, on to Mouchette, Pickpocket and The Devil, Probably in August, Bresson’s contemplative, transcendental odes unto isolation changed the way I was thinking and writing about film.

I wonder... how many films have I seen that I have still never seen? This year’s screening of Vertigo in 70mm reminded me the answer is probably “too many.” Love is complicated and dangerous and radical and villainous. And I am complicit.

Another film event which doesn’t need my advocacy, but garners it nevertheless, was Abel Gance’s Napoléon. Here was my immediate reaction to the proceedings in a conversation with a fellow audience member.

Perhaps less visually astonishing, though entirely as frenetic and profound was the recent restoration of Shirley Clarke’s The Connection, which made its way to The Roxie in June. Here, Clarke lures us like a fly, entranced by the irresistible, acrid sweetness of rotting fruit, onto the walls of a jazz age heroin den. We survey its occupant’s dreams and realities; we question our very motivation for rubber-necking our way through the scene. That damned and uplifted scene.

Then there’s Crossroads, Bruce Conner’s mesmerizing montage of a 1945 A-bomb test in the Bikini Atoll. Together with the miraculous green sunset of Rohmer’s Le Rayon Vert, these two screenings brought me to that uncanny precipice where only celluloid dare tread.

And I simply cannot leave out: Thieves’ Highway, The Duellists, Week End, Celine & Julie Go Boating, Pandora’s Box and The Wages of Fear. But is it right for me to just list them here? All without triggering those elemental curiosities? Those searing fricatives and discordant tonalities? Those modes of thought and being towards art they inspired in me? How Bresson haunts me still.

The Two Eyes Of Carl Martin

If you didn't attend some wonderful repertory/revival film screenings in 2012, you missed out. As nobody could see them all, I've recruited Frisco Bay filmgoers to recall some of their own favorites of the year. An index of participants is found here.  

The following list comes from Carl Martin, film projectionist and keeper of the Bay Area Film Calendar.

on the silver globe: may 13, ybca

watching a near-incomprehensible 3-hour mess during the height of my allergic bout last year was torture.  i couldn't say what happened moment to moment--in broad strokes, astronauts alight on a far-flung planet and recapitulate in compressed time the evolution of human culture and religion.  i do know it's chock-full of shockingly beautiful shots, like that of a forest of pole-sitters perched on a beach.  this wildly ambitious relic was left unfinished, a victim of shifting political tides, the balance filled in years later via voiceover paired with fish-eyed guerilla subway footage--as if an andrzej zulawski (possession) film needed any help being totally schizoid.

white dogjune 3; arne sucksdorff shorts: june 7, private screenings
anti-wellesian high-angle shots implicate the viewer in perennial racial pot-stirrer sam fuller's sordid, methodical tale of a racist dog.  fortuitously preceded by
skipper learns a lesson, the 16mm educational film that so moved a young kristy mcnichol it inspired her participation in fuller's film, in which she gives a brave, emotionally naked performance.  morricone score!  a few days later, a pair of lovely and intimate nature documentary shorts, part of a larger shorts selection curated by k. wiggin.  shadows on the snow depicts the stalking of a bear, carefully balancing the fortunes of hunter and prey; rhythm of a city: a film from stockholm, because of its setting, also a city symphony of sorts.  as venues shut down or go digital and the studios increase their iron grip on prints, we'll rely increasingly on collectors and grey-area screenings to satisfy our celluloid cravings.

the man in the gray flannel suitjune 21, pfa
i did not expect this film to wander lustily into such a moral quagmire.  in flashbacks to his wartime experiences, "agreeable gentleman" gregory peck kills a man for his coat and conducts an affair while unambiguously still married.  one feels this to be an admirable corrective to the usual us-vs-them heroics of cinematic warfare of that time.  in a wonderful and prescient throwaway scene, peck wrests his kids from the tv and sends them off to bed, only to fall himself under its hypnotic spell.

valerie and her week of wonders: june 29, pfa
i'd seen this years before but was struck this time by its wondrous, dreamlike beauty.  as with
on the silver globe there's a lot going on i can't make much sense of beyond its deep resonance.

five elements ninjas: july 6, roxie
after quick-zooming our way through the usual confused exposition, we get to the meat of the matter: a series of truly inspired confrontations with super-natural ninja foursomes representing gold, water, earth, wood, and fire.  balletic kung-fu at its best.

die wunderbare lüge der nina petrowna (the wonderful lie of nina petrovna): july 13, castro
probably one of my top three silent film experiences ever, with one of my favorite stars.  the emotive power of brigitte helm's face is stunning.  majestic ophuls-like photography and settings, with the edge in sensuousness.  franz lederer needs to stop gambling already!

awāra: july 28, pfa
the pfa's
raj kapoor series featured some of the most horrid looking prints i've ever seen: black-and-white on inconsistently timed color stock full of all manner of printed-in defects.  incredibly, awāra, with its fatalistic melodrama and busby berkeley-caliber musical numbers, overcame all that.

walker: october 6, pfa
a troubling peckinpah-inspired masterpiece from alex cox--troubling for that world-beating american cowboy spirit and troubling for cox's career as a consequence.  ed harris goes on a messianic power trip in nicaragua in the best performance by him i've seen.  he won me over from the get-go in a tender signed scene with marlee matlin.

whisper of the heart: october 10, california
i never though i'd include an anime in this list.  but yoshifumi kondô's only film (as director) mostly eschews the wide-eyed te-heeing teens, moped hooligans, mystical animals, and steampunk fantasy embraced by miyazaki and his lessers in favor of bittersweet, down-to-earth, contemporary teen romance.  i still can't get olivia newton-john's country roads rendition out of my head.  one of the last films seen at my former workplace.

the frightened woman: november 17, victoria
a bizarre eurotrash revenge tale with so many delightful surprises involving props, sets, mise en scène, and plain wrongness that the plot twist at the end seems comparatively tame.  note to victoria: please adjust feed clutch so films don't break at the ends of the reels.