Thursday, February 28, 2013

Emerald (2007)

WHO: Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

WHAT: As a long-time, loyal Apichatpong fan, I've been about as interested in seeing and engaging with his video works as with his better-known 35mm features. Luckily, local curators have been very helpful in helping me pursue this interest over the years. Yerba Buena Center For the Arts, for example, has screened his 2001 work Haunted Houses and programmed two sets of his shorts. And last year the Asian Art Museum included his installation Phantoms of Nabua as a centerpiece of a group show; I got to see it there man times. (It was also acquired for the SFMOMA collection as well though it has not yet screened there; my girlfriend Kerry Laitala recently highlighted it along with other works in the collection for the SFMOMA Open Space blog.)

But the above are all purely single-channel works, and I've until now only been able to read about Apichatpong's installations that involve more than just an image on a screen in a darkened room. Emerald (known also as Morakot, a transliteration of the Thai word for the gemstone) is the first I've been able to view. Named for the shut-down Bangkok hotel where it was shot, this 10-minute looped video is projected onto a screen across the room from its ingress. Between the screen and the entering viewer hangs a lantern emitting a low level of green light, "creating a focal point and a meditative portal into the space of the single-channel video", as Dena Beard writes in the exhibition brochure.

Not unlike in his 1999 work Windows, the images on the screen are evocative of abandonment; most contain no human figures but the traces of them in these hotel bedrooms remain. The air is filled with illuminated particles of dust and feathers; have birds made a home of this structure in the absence of tourists and travelers? The soundtrack is certainly human though: voices of a few of Apichatpong's favorite actors from his features, including Jenjira Pongpas (the facial-cream fanatic from Blissfully Yours) and Sakda Kaewbuadee (the soldier from Tropical Malady and monk from Syndromes and a Century), relate personal stories from their own lives in a conversation that recalls the first-person narratives the filmmaker elicits in his debut feature Mysterious Object at Noon.  

WHERE/WHEN: Screens at the Berkeley Art Museum during its gallery hours (11AM to 5PM Wednesday through Sunday) until April 21st.

WHY: As many associations as I've made above between Emerald and previous Apichatpong Weerasethakul works, it also seems to anticipate his most recent featurette Mekong Hotel, which is (as its title suggests) another video work shot entirely in a hotel, this time one in Nong Khai, a small city on the Thai bank of the river that delineates most of the border between the Thai region of Isan (where Apichatpong grew up) and the country Laos. It also features performances by Jenjira and Sakda, though not just voiceover in this case, and even makes reference the Emerald Buddha which changed hands between Thailand and Laos and back centuries ago, and whose tears some believe cause the flooding of the mighty Mekong.

I was able to view Mekong Hotel on screener in anticipation of its March 16 & 17 appearances at this year's CAAM Fest, which runs from March 14-24 in San Francisco and Berkeley (though not, for the first time in memory, in San Jose, which will have to make do with the currently-running Cinequest for its fix of Asian and other international and independent movies this month). Apichatpong's Cannes Palme D'Or prize-winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives also screens at the Berkeley Art Museum's conjoined organization the Pacific Film Archive during the festival, but I'm unclear whether or not it's actually an official festival screening or not; the PFA site seems to indicate it is, but the CAAM site doesn't include it.

Ill be previewing more CAAM Fest titles soon, but for now I'll just mention a few titles I'm excited the festival is bringing to Frisco Bay: 

Beautiful 2012, a portmanteau with contributions from the great Tsai Ming-Liang (The Wayward Cloud), Ann Hui (A Simple Life), Kim Tae-yong (Memento Mori) and Gu Changwei (cinemtographer for Zhang Yimou, Jiang Wen, Robert Altman, etc. and now a director in his own right)

When Night Falls, a critically-acclaimed representative of the current crop of low-budget independent Chinese filmmaking, which has made its director Ying Liang (Taking Father Home, The Other Half) an exile from his own homeland.

Touch of the Light, a Taiwanese production about a visually impaired pianist that Wong Kar-Wai is credited with executive producing. 

A closing-night presentation of Asian-American home movies entitled Memories To Light. A brilliant idea for a closing night presentation that I suspect may start a trend among other festivals. New People seems far too small a venue for such an occasion.

HOW: The Emerald installation is made up of a video projection and a low-hanging lantern. I'm not sure why, but there are no subtitles projected as part of the piece for the Berkeley installation, but an English translation of the disembodied dialogue is available as a handout to museum guests.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

8½ (1963)

WHO: Federico Fellini.

WHAT: Here's how Catherine Breillat described this film when addressing a Fellini study congress in 2003:
At this particular moment I feel just like Marcello Mastroianni when he didn't want to (or couldn't) decide to start making his film and is pushed, if not dragged, onto the set. And that's how we see him, with his heels dug in as hard as [they] can in order to put off the inexorable moment of confrontation for as long as possible. 
This moment, when everyone is expecting something from us, and we have to know how to give it to them, is very difficult. There is no "savoir-faire", only  a leap into thin air and therefore we have to reply on that other person inside us, who can, and must pull us through. The seventh art is a name that I find particularly fitting, because it is a magical art. The film makes itself. It creates its own needs. It directs itself, it isn't directed. It is the Maestro and you need to have made a film to understand this.   
There is none of the director's faint-heartedness, only the fear. The need, the imagination, and the fear.
WHERE/WHEN: Today only at the Castro Theatre, at 2:30 and 7:00 PM.

WHY: After a long stretch of mostly awarding films that seem very unlikely to become canonized classics among future film historians (call them "The Kolya Years"), the voters for the Academy Award For Best Foreign-Language Film have in the last couple of ceremonies announced winners that align with the critical and cinephile consensus: Amour this year and A Separation last. Will this usher in a period like that of the first decade or so of the Academy made this a competitive category (beginning in 1956 when Fellini's La Strada won the prize) in which the winners by and large are remembered in cinema history not just as trivia footnotes due to their Oscar-winning status, but as memorable, influential and dare I say important films in their own right? (One may quibble about the relative merits of films like Mon Oncle  and The Virgin Spring within their directors' filmographies but it's hard to deny their status as enduring classics.)

And then there's .  Not only did it take the Oscar in 1964, besting Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water among other titles, but it has become the signature work of its director, its star Marcello Mastroianni and its composer Nino Rota.  It's considered by many to be one of the all-time great films; the consensus of critics responding to Sight and Sound's most recent poll named it the #10 best of all time, and the directors collectively rated it even higher, at #4. History will tell us if Amour's reputation ever touches those heights, but for now, I'm just glad there's a chance for us to see it on the big screen where it belongs best. 

The Castro has released its March calendar but before that month begins there's one more chance to see another Italian film that won the Foreign Language Film Academy Award: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, for which Elio Petri took home the statuette in 1971, screen in a new 4k-restoration DCP tomorrow night.

HOW: 8½ is paired with another wonderful film set inside the movie-making world: Albert Brooks's Modern Romance. Both in 35mm prints.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Upstream Color (2013)

WHO: Writer/director/etc. Shane Carruth's long-awaited follow-up to his 2004 time-travel movie Primer.

WHAT: It's rare for a truly independent film to arrive on a Frisco Bay screen so soon after make a splash at the Sundance Film Festival, which wrapped just a month ago. Anyone who loved the mind-boggling Primer (and there are many) is excited to see what Carruth has come up with nine years later, especially if they paid attention to the buzz accompanying its debut. Todd McCarthy called it "beautiful, mysterious, thematically suggestive but dramatically obscure, this is an experimental art film that appealed to exactly the same fan base as Primer and suggests a deeper burrowing" into Carruth's mind. My friend Jeremy Mathews said "the film continually finds new ways to evoke unexpected feelings". I'm cherry-picking vaguely effusive quotes on the advice of Sam Adams, who suggests viewers know as little as possible about the film, "since having the movie wash over me was one of the most transcendent experiences of my moviegoing life." 

WHERE/WHEN: Screening as a sneak preview at the Roxie tonight, and opening there for a regular run starting April 12th. 

WHY: Although tonight's San Francisco Film Society-presented screening with Carruth in person is sold-out, it may be worth camping out in front of the Roxie and hoping for a "mircale" ticket to come your way. Or you can wait until April. It's nice to see the Roxie get an advance sell-out show, especially considering last weekend's Joe Swanberg series wasn't exactly a blockbuster for the venue. The SFFS presents another public screening on Thursday of this week as well: Miss Lovely, the latest feature by Ashim Ahluwalia, the director of the disquieting John and Jane Toll-Free. This will be at the New People Cinema in Japantown.

HOW: Projected digitally, I'm 99.99% sure.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

WHO: Quvenzhané Wallis was just great in this. her first film role with more on the way.

WHAT: This wasn't among my favorite films of 2012, mostly because I found it stylistically and/or thematically derivative of prior films by David Gordon Green, Spike Jonze and especially Terence Malick, whose influence hangs over the proceedings like a storm cloud over the Bayou. But it contains performances (Wallis's especially) that seem remarkable, and a number of scenes (I'm thinking of the "Girls Girls Girls" scene in particular) that capture a singular poetry worthy of comparison to the films it seems to be emulating.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens three times daily at the Opera Plaza, and twice daily at the Balboa and (in Berkeley) the Elmwood, at least until this Thursday.

WHY: Yes, my hunch was wrong about Amour getting shut out at the Oscars yesterday. I will have to modify my generalized, stereotypical image of Academy members accordingly. In fact, of the nine Best Picture nominees, only one team came out of the evening completely empty-handed: Beasts of the Southern Wild, which went 0 for 4. It had the least number of nominations among the nine (less even than Skyfall, which failed to make the Best Picture slate). During the ceremony, jokes were made from the stage about its status as the most truly "indie" of the nominees (one song lyric said it cost "fifty bucks"; I hope the folks at the San Francisco Film Society have a sense of humor; they awarded a pair of post-production grants and helped ensure editing and visual effects work was done here in San Francisco) and perhaps its nominated participants were simply happy to be there, amidst the entitled Hollywood royalty epitomized by Ben Affleck, whose receipt of a statue as producer of Best Picture-winning Argo didn't seem to do much to change his petulant demeanor, worn presumably because of the massive injustice done to him by the directors' branch that failed to nominate him in that category as well. Never mind the massive injustice his movie does to a great "stranger than fiction" story that deserved a better movie in my opinion. I shudder to think of latecomers entering the theatre to watch this movie after its opening montage has already completed; it's the only moment of the film that provides appropriate political context to a film that teeters dangerously close to jingoistic propaganda otherwise. Anyway, if you can't tell, I wish Beasts of the Southern Wild or any of the other nominees had bested Argo. Now the latter is likely to hang around on local cinema screens a lot longer than the former, which having gone winless I suspect doesn't have much of a theatrical life left in it. Its more modest flaws deserve to be overwhelmed by the big-screen experience.


HOW: In 35mm at the Opera Plaza and the Balboa. Digitally at the Elmwood.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Amour (2012)

WHO: Michael Haneke directed this.

WHAT: I know that earlier this week I said I don't do public Oscar predictions, but that wasn't meant to be a promise. I just can't resist going out on a limb with this one. Although Amour has been picking up prizes left and right starting with its Cannes debut and most recently at the Césars and the Independent Spirit Awards, is nominated in five Academy Award categories, and is widely expected to win in at least one of them today, Yet I predict the Amour team will go home empty-handed. If Amour does win an award. it won't be the one everyone thinks it will.

I'm not saying Amour doesn't deserve any Oscars. It's a very well-made film, and if I were an Academy voter myself I'd have strongly considered voting for it, at least in the only one of its five categories in which I've seen all of the nominees for: Best Director. But like most of Haneke's films its unblinking treatment of the illnesses of old age makes it an extraordinarily bleak viewing experience. To quote the tweet I typed after exiting the theatre, "You're riding a plane slowly crash-landing into Hell. With each cut the pilot makes you look out the window at the descent".

I would be thoroughly shocked if a film this harrowing is what a plurality of Oscar voters are going to want to present as the face of the film year by awarding it Oscars in top categories like Best Picture or Best Director. And although some believe there's a groundswell of support for the great Emmanuelle Riva to snatch the Best Actress in a Leading Role trophy, there's a lot of campaigning muscle being put behind other more bankable candidates, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who admires the performance of her (un-nominated) co-star Jean-Louis Trintignant more than hers. The Original Screenplay award is a tougher call; the Slant pundits make a good argument that this will break Amour's way in the absence of any other credibly viable candidates. Personally I'm rooting for Moonrise Kingdom here, but I wouldn't be so surprised to be wrong on this one. 

But I would be surprised, going completely against the tide, to see Amour take home the best Foreign Language Film Oscar. This bout of confidence will sound even more bizarre when I drop the other shoe: I haven't seen any of the other nominees in this category. I let A Royal Affair's theatrical run pass me by last year, and had to miss the Rafael's advance screenings of Kon-Tiki (which the Weinstein Company will release in April) and War Witch (which opens at the Roxie March 15th) and a press screening of No (which opens at the Embarcadero March 1st). So it's only a gut instinct that makes me feel that any of these other four films is more likely to win than the supposed frontrunner is. They all sound more up the Academy's alley than the film I watched last month.

Why would I know something all the pundits don't? I think some may be forgetting that a Haneke's last film the White Ribbon won quite a large number of so-called "precursor" awards on its way to Oscar night a few years back, and was widely predicted to win the award, but ultimately lost to the Argentine political thriller The Secret In Their Eyes. Some may remember that, but note that Amour has more evident support from the wider Academy, with its four nominations in other categories. But the same could be said about Pan's Labyrinth and Amelie, both of which also were multi-laureled frontrunners, but lost Oscars to The Lives of Others and No Man's Land, respectively. 

"Ah, but neither of those were also nominated for Best Picture," I hear some of you say. "Foreign Films nominated for Best Picture always win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar". What about Grand Illusion, The Emigrants, Cries and Whispers and Il Postino, then? "Well, none of those Best Picture nominees were actually nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the same time." Fair enough, I'll concede. But that leaves precisely three data points for this pattern you're trying to establish. Z in 1969, Life is Beautiful in 1998 and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000. It's just not enough of a trend for me to consider it significant, especially since these were all in the days of only five Best Picture nominees. I'm not so sure that Amour would have made the cut if there weren't nine slots in the top category this year.

Hype goes very far in awards season. But it can only go so far in the Foreign Language Film category, which is different from most Oscars in that, according to the rules, Academy members "can vote only after attesting they have seen all of the nominated films" in the category. Not only that, but historically, the films had to be seen at Academy-approved cinema screenings. I'm not certain if that's still the case, but the lack of most of the category's titles on lists of screeners received by Academy members makes me think it is. If the only Academy members voting in this category are the ones with the time and motivation to go to approved screenings, it's got to be a pretty small decision pool, and by the looks of recent lists of winners in this category, not one made up of fans of ice-cold clinical looks at the awfulness of the human condition. I think the collective consensus is much more likely to have picked a more inspirational or conventional movie, one they can take pride in 'discovering' for the rest of us to enjoy by anointing it with the priceless publicity of an Oscar.

WHERE/WHEN: Amour has multiple showtimes today through Thursday (and likely beyond) at the Clay, where it's been playing for many weeks (including when I saw it). Also playing at the Camera 3 in San Jose and other local venues.

WHY: If you don't care about Oscar season, I don't blame you. But if you haven't seen Amour yet you may want to do it soon, to get in the mood for the Pacific Film Archive's series devoted to actor Jean-Louis Trintignant that begins next Saturday. The aforementioned Z is one of the eleven films screening at the Berkeley venue.

HOW: Amour shows on 35mm at the Clay and the Camera 3, and (I believe) digitally elsewhere.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

City Girl (1930)

WHO: F.W. Murnau directed this, his final of three films he shot in the United States of America.

WHAT: Originally intended by Murnau to be entitled Our Daily Bread, this film was substantially altered by the Fox Studio without the director's involvement, and released as City Girl, in both part-talkie and silent versions. Only the silent version remains extant, and although it's certainly the Murnau film that feels the most like other Hollywood films (it fits snugly into a tradition of films involving women uprooted by marriage and placed into a more traditional, rural setting, also including MantrapThe Canadian, The Wind, and A House Divided, just to name a few from the late twenties or early thirties that I've seen or written about in the past several months) it retains quite a bit of the director's inherent poetry. It's not that strange that a certain minority Murnau fans even prefer it to his canonized masterpiece Sunrise, which it invites comparisons to as it reverses the latter's scenario in a few crucial ways.

WHERE/WHEN: Program starts 7:30 PM tonight only at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont.

WHY: If you were among the several hundred people who watched the San Francisco Silent Film Festival presentation of Faust a week ago, your reaction to Murnau's final film shot in his homeland of Germany, may have been something along the lines of "More! Now!" (Yes, that's basically how the director's name is pronounced). If so, you didn't have to wait too long. 

HOW: With a pair of short comedies, the animated Big Chief Koko and the live-action Isn't Life Terrible, all on 16mm prints, with live music by Jon Mirsalis (a great podcast interview with Mirsalis is found here by the way).

Friday, February 22, 2013

Silver Bullets (2011)

WHO: Joe Swanberg wrote, directed and stars in this. He also has credits as cinematographer, editor, co-producer, and is even one of three people credited for sound. Such is the way of making movies on ultra-low budgets sometimes.

WHAT: Although the most widely-seen work Swanberg has made so far has been a segment of last year's "found footage" horror anthology V/H/S, his earlier Silver Bullets is not really, contra imdb, a horror movie. It does feature rather elaborate werewolf make-up by Brian Spears (Stake Land), and it may be frightening on an emotional level to anyone averse to seeing the rawness of an impending break-up portrayed on screen.  Silver Bullets is a seemingly-semi-autobiographical portrait of a crisis point in a relationship between an ultra-low-budget filmmaker (Swanberg) and his girlfriend/leading lady (played to perfection by Kate Lynn Sheil), in which interpersonal tensions erupt when the latter pursues an opportunity to take a role in a "film-within-film" by an independent horror movie maker (played by independent horror movie make Ti West).

It's also the only Swanberg movie I've seen (at the 2011 AFI Fest). I went in with very low expectations because many critics whose opinions I value have nothing good to say about his work, which is often labelled naïve or self-indulgent or worse. But I have to wonder how many of his detractors have seen Silver Bullets (at least one has indicated he felt it represented a growth step for the young auteur.)  Overall I was impressed. Though Swanberg makes some choices with the camera and with his audio mix that I found off-putting, the ultimate impact of the film was that it really captured a complex idea very well: that an artist has very different sorts of relationships with his artworks and his collaborators, and that allowing these to bleed over into each other is perilous. For more detailed analysis I recommend reading Jaime Christley's review at Slant, or what Dan Sallitt has to say on his blog.

WHERE/WHEN: Screening tonight only at 7PM at the Roxie Theater, on a double-bill with Swanberg's Art History.

WHY: Is Silver Bullets a fluke, or an entry point to discovering riches in the remainder of the Swanberg videography? I don't know, but right about now is the perfect time to find out. Tonight's screening of Silver Bullets launches a 12-title retrospective of features directed by the prolific 31-year-old since 2005. Of these twelve I believe nine are making their Frisco Bay theatrical premiere, and of the three that aren't (also including LOL and Hannah Takes the Stairs), All the Light in the Sky premiered only this week at the just-wrapped IndieFest. It's safe to say local cinemagoers have not had much chance to see Swanberg's work, so I'm glad the Roxie decided to take on this series, especially with the director expected to be present for all 12 screenings, ready to personally take credit or blame should it be assigned.

HOW: I believe all of Swanberg's movies were made on video, and will be shown via digital projections this weekend.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

For Scent-imental Reasons (1949)

WHO: Directed by Chuck Jones, this is one of two Academy-Award-winning films he made in 1949. Although both awards went to his producer Edward Selzer, Jones remains the only director to have made films that have won Oscars in both the animated short category and the documentary short category during the same year.

WHAT: This is the first cartoon of the long-running series of Pepé Le Pew shorts produced at the Warner Brothers studio in which Pepé's character is fully-developed. In his first two appearances (Odor-Able Kitty and Scent-imental Over You) the passionate polecat's name is not Pepé but "Stinky", and in the former cartoon is in fact revealed at the end to be an American-accented philanderer named Henry only trying on a Charles Boyer impression. (This is probably the most zoologically logical explanation for a skunk to have a French accent; the Mephitidae family has no representatives native to Europe, although it occurs to me that he could in fact be a Québécois). An unnamed, nonverbal skunk with a Pepé-esque appearance also makes a cameo in the 1946 Fair And Worm-er, and is the focus of the 1948 Art Davis-directed cartoon Odor Of The Day, in which he acts totally uncharacteristically (read: unlasciviously). For Scent-imental Reasons begins a string of thirteen cartoons made over an equal number of years, all but one (Really Scent) directed by Jones, in which the skunk is definitely French, definitely attracted to female cats with white stripes painted down their backs, and definitely full of himself. In other words, definitely Pepé.

WHERE/WHEN: Tonight at 8PM at Oddball Fillms. Seating is limited, so it's best to RSVP by e-mailing or calling ahead at (415) 558-8117. 

WHY: Oddball is the only screening local venue I can think of, other than perhaps the Paramount, which plays Warner Brothers cartoons on a semi-regular basis. Although I hope some Frisco Bay programmer decides to organize a 35mm screening of Chuck Jones films to coincide with the Cartoon Art Museum's current exhibition of static art produced by the most famous member of the Termite Terrace team of directors, I'll take what I can get, and for now, this appears to be the only opportunity to see a Jones film projected on film in the near future.

HOW: Oddball usually screens only 16mm prints from its own collection. For Scent-imental Reasons screens on a program of Oscar-nominated films and clips from past Oscar ceremonies, also including Saul Bass's Why Man Creates, Mel Brooks's The Critic, Isaac Hayes performing the "Theme From Shaft" at the 1972 ceremony, and an excerpt from one of that year's strangest winners, The Hellstrom Chronicle, which I saw in full at Oddball last December and called an "Eco-malthusian approach to arthropods as scientifically suspect as creationism but WAY more fun". I can't believe it actually won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Love And Duty (1931)

WHO: Ruan Lingyu, frequently called the Greta Garbo of the Shanghai film industry, stars.

WHAT: I don't know anything about this film except that it's extraordinarily rare, and a personal favorite of Frisco Bay-born critic Kevin B. Lee, who knows a thing or three about Chinese cinema. (You can hear more about Lee's unique path into cinephilia and film criticism in this podcast hosted by by Peter Labuza.) He even included it in his entry for the Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time Poll last year.

WHERE/WHEN: 7:00 tonight only at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.

WHY: There are lots of reasons to see a Chinese silent film on a Wednesday night. Perhaps you're already in withdrawl from last weekend's Silent Winter event at the Castro. Perhaps you're ruing the negatively stereotyped Hollywood depictions of Chinese characters (played wonderfully, if broadly villainously, by Japanese actor Sojin and Chinese American Anna May Wong) in The Thief of Bagdad from that event, and want an antidote of Asian origin. Or perhaps you want to ring in the Year of the Snake in traditional style -- since the 4-Star didn't extend its long-standing tradition of showing prints of new Hong Kong releases for Chinese New Year, I believe tonight marks the first local unspooling of a 35mm print of a Chinese film in the New Lunar Year.

But the real reason Love And Duty is being screened tonight is because it's the eve of  a wonderful biennial Berkeley tradition: the Second International Berkeley Conference on Silent Cinema, which runs from Thursday until Saturday and brings an impressive line-up of scholars to speak about topics relating to pre-talkie cinema from around the globe. I was able only to attend one of last year's lectures (from the dizzyingly brilliant Tom Gunning) but did catch some of the accompanying screenings. This year's overarching theme, "On Location" is of particular interest to me, so I hope to attend far more of the talks this year, and as many of the remaining screenings as I can. In addition to Love And Duty, which will be introduced by Berkeley's own Weihong Bao tonight, a pair of 1914 Westerns screen tomorrow with an introduction by UC Davis's Scott Simmon, and a fascinating-sounding, Soviet film called The Ghost That Does Not Return, that uses Azerbaijan as a stand-in for South America, will be shown and introduced by Anne Nesbet (also of Berkeley).

HOW: Love And Duty screens via a tinted 35mm print shipped over from the Chinese Taipei Film Archive, with Judith Rosenberg accompanying on piano.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Chang (1927)


WHO: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack made this film six years before they made King Kong.

WHAT: Chang is a remarkable if somewhat unsettling documentary made by Cooper & Schoedsack in the beautiful Pua District of Nan Province on what is now the border between Northern Thailand and Laos. It follows the model of Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North in that it does not feature unstaged footage, but follows a fictional but (largely) fact-based narrative performed by non-actors. Like most documentaries of its day, it makes no attempt to conceal the fact that its actors knew they were making a movie and "performing" their daily rituals for a camera (even if they might have performed some of them anyway, without its presence.) That goes for the human performers, anyway. The many many animals in the film were of course unaware of the camera and were just reacting to what life and the filmmakers was throwing them. And they threw them a lot, some of it not so pleasant. There's no doubt that this film can be an uncomfortable viewing for those of us used to reassurances that "no animals were harmed in the making of" the motion pictures we watch. There's an excellent essay by Shari Kizirian on the film published on the website of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

WHERE/WHEN: Tonight only at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, at 7PM.

WHY: Yesterday I finally watched Ang Lee's Life Of Pi, currently nominated for a slew of Academy Awards, and found myself thinking of Chang (which was a runner-up for the Academy Award in the short-lived "Unique and Artistic Production" category at the first-ever ceremony in 1929) quite frequently. Both films feature a lot of animals and no American movie stars, and focus thematically on the relationships between humans and animals, particularly our attempts to tame or train them. Of course Life of Pi is no documentary, but neither is Chang by our modern standards. There are vast differences, though. Whereas the animals of Chang are real, and so is the harm that frequently befalls them, modern computer-generatied image techniques have made it possible for harm to the animals of Life of Pi without any real animals being touched (or, in some cases, even filmed).  The fact that South Asians make up part of the audience market for Life of Pi in a way that Southeast Asians did not for Chang also explains, along with eighty-six years of history, why the human portrayals in Lee's film are also far less likely to make us cringe than some of those in Cooper and Schoedsack's do. But both films fill the same audience desire to see man-vs.- nature drama enacted on screen, and have become hits in their respective eras despite a lack of Hollywood stars.

HOW: Chang screens from a 35mm print from Milestone Film & Video, preceded by a 35mm print of Luis Buñuel's 1932 Land Without Bread from the Harvard Film Archive.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Lincoln (2012)

WHO: Yes, Daniel Day-Lewis, and yes Steven Spielberg. But I want to focus this post more on cinematographer Janusz Kamiński's contribution.

WHAT: I'm not much of one for public Academy Award prognostications; I leave that to the team at Slant Magazine, who are almost as good at predicting Oscar winners as they are at being entertaining while doing so.  But I do keep my ear to the ground, see some of the nominees if they look like they might be up my alley, and watch the show even if it means going to a movie theatre to do so. It's the one night of the year when, historically, the television screen is paying tribute to the cinema experience rather than just drawing eyes away from it.

From my perspective, television and cinema and cinema are in certain ways converging more and more every year, even while in other ways they remain separate as ever, as illustrated in this terrific article. So while more and more people see made-for-cinema product using televisions or television-like technology, it's also becoming the rule for cinemagoing to involve technologies arguably just as television-like. Movies made on videocameras, projected via video projectors.

I appreciate the individuals working in the film industry who fight to keep the old, decidedly un-television-like working methods alive. Janusz Kamiński is one of these; he's the only one of the current slate of nominees for a Best Cinematography Oscar who has always shot his feature films on film. Lincoln of course is no different, which may be a disadvantage for him as a contender for the award this year; Slant puts him in second-place in this year's race, but gives the edge to The Life Of Pi's Claudio Miranda, who was one of the first to see one of his digitally-shot films nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar, but who lost that year to another digital DP, Anthony Dod Mantle for Slumdog Millionaire. In the years since then, two out of three winners in this category shot digitally: Avatar (shot by Mauro Fiore) and Hugo (shot by Robert Richardson, who is also nominated this year for the 35mm-shot Django Unchained) were both Digital 3D works like Life of Pi, making Wally Pfiser's Inception the only film-on-film to beat a digital movie (Jeff Cronenweth's The Social Network) in this Oscar category in the past four years.

Who knows how much longer 35mm film stock will be used to make prestige pictures of the kind nominated for Academy Awards? And who knows how much longer they'll continue to be distributed to (at least some) theatres via 35mm prints? For me, this shift would not be as lamentable if it didn't feel like powerful forces were attempting to make it total. Filming on film requires acts of faith (in one's own abilities, at the very least) every time the words "Cut! Print!" are uttered. Seeing this disappear makes me want to root for any resistance against it. Lincoln may not be a perfect film, but it's photographed exquisitely using methods that could be obsolete before you know it.

WHERE/WHEN: Three shows daily at the Balboa Theatre, at least until this Thursday. Also playing at many other local venues this week, mostly large multiplexes.

WHY: Oh, yeah, and it's President's Day today too. Maybe you even have a day off and can take in a matinee. Happy belated birthday, Mr. Lincoln!

HOW: The Balboa is, to the best of my knowledge (and reflected in the Bay Area Film Calendar listings) the only place in the Bay Area to see Lincoln in a 35mm print. In fact, I believe it's the only place here to see any of the Best Cinematography nominees on 35mm; both Django Unchained and Roger Deakins's digitally-shot Skyfall seem to be playing only on all-digital screens now, while Seamus McGarvey's Anna Karenina is gone from cinemas completely, and Life of Pi never had prints struck at all.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Secret Agent (1936)

WHO: Alfred Hitchcock directing.

WHAT: It's not one of Hitchcock's absolute masterpieces, but this adaptation of a Somerset Maugham novel is still an essential film for anyone interested in the Master of Suspense, or, indeed, in cinema itself. Peter Lorre's performance in the film is over-the-top even for him.

WHERE/WHEN: Today is its final day playing at the Stanford Theatre, where it has two showtimes: 5:55 and 9:05.

WHY: I've never seen an Alfred Hitchcock film that wasn't worth seeing, although I do still have quite a few gaps in my viewing history. For instance I've yet to see Young and Innocent which plays with this tonight as part of the Stanford's double-bill. And I've never seen The Paradine Case or Rich and Strange or even Foreign Correspondent, which is why I'm excited they're being brought to the Pacific Film Archive over the next couple months. One day I may break down and find DVD copies of the Hitchcock films I've never seen (which also include Topaz and Jamaica Inn and a good portion of his pre-1935 work). But I certainly don't want to do that with his silent films, which absolutely deserve to be seen in cinemas with top-class musical accompaniment, and not in the video copies with terrible image quality that circulate in DVD bargain bins and online. With new restorations of Hitchcock silent films recently made available to international festivals, I had a feeling that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival might bring one or two of them as part of its July film festival. What a pleasant surprise to learn at yesterday's Silent Winter extravaganza that they'll be bringing all nine of the restorations to the Castro Theatre June 14-16! I couldn't be happier with this news. Having seen films like Blackmail and Downhill in cinemas with live accompaniment I know that this is going to be quite a treat for all silent film lovers and Hitchcock fans.

HOW: Secret Agent and Young and Innocent screen in 35mm prints tonight.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Faust (1926)


WHO: F.W. Murnau directed this four years after making what is now his most famous film, the original vampire movie Nosferatu

WHAT: The tale of the silent film figure whose career died because he or she couldn't make the transition to talking pictures is all too commonly told. Even more tragic are the stories of those whose lives were cut short too soon, and therefore never were given the opportunity to transition or to fail. For some the absence of a significant sound-era career seems to intensify the iconic status of their silent work: think of acting legend Lon Chaney, Sr, who died in 1930 after making just one talking picture (a remake of his silent-era tour-de-force The Unholy Three) or comedienne Mabel Normand, who died the same year and whose voice was never recorded on film. Murnau, who died in a car accident in 1931, just after putting the finishing touches on one of the last silent films released by Hollywood (Tabu) is another such figure. His status as one of the greatest masters of silent film language solidifies with each passing decade, perhaps partially because his silent masterpieces do not have to compete for attention with the talkies that he never filmed. Last year his 1927 film Sunrise rose to fifth place in Sight & Sound Magazine's influential poll of the greatest films of all time. Faust received some votes in that poll, too, from prestigious sources such as curator/historian/critic Pierre Rissient and director Shinji Aoyama

But, as Matt Elrin notes in his chapter on Faust for the book Weimar Cinema, Murnau's film was not well-received in Germany upon its 1926 release. It was considered a faulty adaptation of Goethe's literary masterpiece by the majority of German critics, and failed with audiences as well, making back not much more than half of its enormous production cost for the Ufa studio. Elrin makes an interesting case that Murnau was not interested in representing Goethe's classic for the screen, however, but repurposing it as a metaphor for German culture in general and cinema in particular, with Mephisto representing the seductive "director" figure and Faust himself representing Germany's literary tradition, the soul of which is being contested by those who would use or misuse it for their own purposes. 

Whether Murnau had all this on his mind at all while making the film or not, I've always wondered if he knew while making it that Faust would not be well-received in its day. By the time he started production on the film, he had already proven himself one of the world's greatest directors with his 1924 The Last Laugh. He had already secured an unprecedented deal with the Fox Film Corporation to come to the United States to make films (the first of which would be Sunrise). Mary Pickford's favorite cinematographer Charles Rosher was brought to Berlin to serve as an unofficial consultant on the film, but Murnau's interactions with him revealed a man with his mind already on what he might be able to do with the resources of Hollywood at his disposal. Did Murnau sense that his fortunes might not be tied up with the success or failure of Faust, and therefore feel free to make a film without regarding how it would be understood in his homeland?

Regardless, Faust was more successful in the international market than in Germany, and it wouldn't be so long after his death that it began being cited at one of Murnau's greatest achievements. Elrin translates a passage from critic/director Eric Rohmer, who asserted that with this film Murnau "was able to mobilize all the means at his disposal to ensure total mastery of [cinematic] space." This is typically how Faust is typically seen by cinema lovers today.

WHERE/WHEN: 9:00 PM tonight only at the Castro Theatre

WHY: Faust screens as the capper on a big day of silent cinema at the Castro, presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Full previews of the festival have been written by the stalwart Michael Hawley and Thomas Gladysz, but I'll give a brief run-down as well. Prior to Faust the festival screens (in order of appearance on the screen) a 1916 version of Snow White that is said to have inspired Walt Disney to make Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs 20 years later, a trio of two-reel comedies by the can't-go-wrong Buster Keaton, the classic Douglas Fairbanks adventure film The Thief of Bagdad, which I hope is a harbinger of more films directed by Raoul Walsh that I know are currently making the rounds internationally, and Mary Pickford's final silent film My Best Girl. As strong as this program promises to be, especially with the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra or pianist Donald Sosin providing live musical accompaniment, Faust is the one I'm most excited to see on the Castro screen for many reasons, one of which is that it gives a week's preparation for another rare opportunity to see a Murnau film in a cinema, as his penultimate film City Girl plays next Saturday at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont.

HOW: Faust will screen from a 35mm print; for more information about its restoration, and details on the other festival films, do read what Carl Martin has dug up. Faust's sound will be provided live by Christian Elliott at the controls of the Castro's beloved Wurlitzer organ. This marks Elliott's first appearance at the SF Silent Film Festival since 2005, when he played wonderfully for the underrated Harold Lloyd comedy For Heaven's Sake, and for the World War I drama The Big Parade. I unfortunately missed the latter show, and have only heard Elliott playing for Keaton comedies at the Stanford in the meantime, so I don't know how well-suited he is to accompanying dramatic material like Faust. But I'm curious. I also missed Dennis James when he played the score to Faust at last year's Cinequest to much acclaim, so I hope I have an opportunity to hear that someday. I'm crossing my fingers that James will reappear at the Castro for the festival's July program; I'd especially love to hear his collaboration with Sosin on a piano/organ duet score for another German expressionist horror film: The Hands of Orlac.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Double Suicide (1969)

WHO: A film by Masahiro Shinoda

WHAT: The best Japanese film of 1969 according to the annual survey of that country's top film magazine Kinema Jumpo. Directed by one of the last living legends of Japanese cinema, with music by one of my favorite composers of all time (for film or otherwise), Toru Takemitsu. The only reason I haven't seen this already is because I've been waiting to see it in a cinema since foolishly missing such a chance at the San Francisco International Film Festival nearly twelve years ago. Yes I can be a patient man sometimes.

WHERE/WHEN: Double Suicide screens at 7:00 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, tonight only.

WHY: I've been writing about Japanese film a fair amount lately. And why not, when there are screening series energizing my passion for it this month? At any moment a drought may come. And in fact, although I'm excited about the recently-announced line-up for the CAAM Fest (formerly known as the San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival- and I'm so glad I'll never have to type out that mouthful again) which runs March 14-24 at the PFA and other Frisco Bay venues, I notice there are fewer Japanese films than usual at this year's edition of the festival: just one new film screening, Sion Sono's Fukishima-themed drama The Land Of Hope, and a gallery presentation of Astro Boy television episodes. I'll have more to say on the CAAM Fest line-up soon.

HOW: 35mm print from Janus.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Gewaltopia Trailer (1968)

WHO: Motoharu Jonouchi is the credited director.

WHAT: This is a collage film that adroitly splices together (often using overlap techniques, presumably via an optical printer) footage from black-and-white movies -- I recognized Lon Chaney from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Paul Wegener from The Golem, and various Willis O'Brien creations from The Lost World and other films -- with images shot by the filmmaker himself, and apparently used in films he'd previously completed. We see an extreme close-up of a tattooed eyelid opening and shutting, chaotic handheld footage of a group of children laughing and playing, and a varied collage of student protest imagery, some of it shot through a fish-eye lens. Clearly this is a work about seeing, or perhaps re-seeing, if the footage (and not just the 1920s-era clips) is truly all recycled from existing works. Yet entitling the film a "trailer," which from the way I read this description might better be re-translated as a "coming attraction" makes the 1968 film seem like a prophecy of a future in which no new images are made and we spend our lives watching images from the past. Or is that already the present and not the future for some of us? At any rate I feel justified in linking this film to Peter Tscherkassky's 2010 film Coming Atrractions.

WHERE/WHEN: This short film screens as part of a 7:30 program of works (mostly) by Jonouchi at Yerba Buena Center For the Arts.

WHY: Valentine's Day is bringing a little heartbreak to a lot of local fans of avant-garde Japanese film. Tonight there are two conflicting rare screenings of such work happening on opposite sides of the Bay. Shuji Terayama's Pastoral: Hide and Seek screens tonight at the the Pacific Film Archive as part of the Art Theatre Guild series I wrote about last week and that Dennis Harvey published a piece about yesterday.   But as rare as that film is, it can't be less likely to make a repeat appearance at a local theatre or on DVD than the Jonouchi films showing tonight, can it? Similarly, this Saturday's YBCA screening of work by the great structuralist filmmaker, Takahiko Iimura, by Nobuhiko Obayashi (who later brought his experimental sensibility to the horror film Hausu) and by Yoichi Takebayashi features work far more difficult to see than Nagisa Oshima's The Ceremony, which plays the PFA that night. 

I'm glad the  final two YBCA screenings and the other remaining PFA shows in this series don't conflict, but it's a shame nobody can see everything in both series, as the resonances between programs are pretty clear. Terayama films screen at both venues, so though I plan to miss Pastoral: Hide and Seek I'll at least be able to catch his notorious Emperor Tomato Ketchup next Thursday at YBCA. After seeing the amazing Ecstasy of the Angels at the PFA last Friday I'm fascinated to see anything its director Koji Wakamatsu was involved in making, especially collectively (you understand if you were at the screening). And according to the book Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against The Sky, Wakamatsu was, along with Jonouchi, Kanbara Hirano, and Ecstasy of Angels screenwriter Masao Adachi, the founders of the Nichidai Group of artist/filmmakers that is collectively credited for one of tonight's YBCA films, PuPu from 1960.

HOW: Some of tonight's shorts will be shown on 16mm prints, and others via digital copies. I don't know which will be which.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Revanche (2008)

WHO: Directed by Götz Spielmann.

WHAT: Austria has been on a relative roll with the Academy Awards lately. In 2008 The Counterfeiters was the winner in the Best Foreign Language Film category, and this year Amour is widely considered the front-runner in that category, and is nominated (although not favored to win) in four other categories. But by my estimate the best recent Oscar nominated film from Fritz Lang's birthplace is the 2009 nominee Revanche. Speilmann is able to make urban and rural spaces equally foreboding and imbued with existential weight, making this crime-gone-awry film one of the best neo-noir films I've seen in years.

WHERE/WHEN: 4:40 and 9:20 today only at the Castro Theatre.

WHY: Lets support foreign-language films at the Castro! For one, there simply aren't enough spaces in San Francisco that show them with regularity. For two, the ones that get theatrically distributed in the US tend to be among the more visually-arresting ones, and therefore benefit from the Castro's large screen. For three, if there's anything that the Castro Theatre isn't consistently wonderful at, it's the sound of dialogue getting swallowed up by the acoustical environment. Watching subtitled films makes this problem (when it occurs, which is certainly not always; it seems to depend on the print) much less of an issue. Other foreign-language films coming to the venue soon include Fellini's February 27th and Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion February 28th (both in Italian), and as learned from the Castro's Coming Soon page, a double-bill of Daisies (in Czech) and Hausu (in Japanese) on March 20th.

HOW: On a 35mm double-bill with the 1942 Ronald Colman/Greer Garson film Random Harvest. I haven't seen the latter, and cannot imagine what the connection between these two films might be, but I trust Castro programmer Keith Arnold that one exists.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Free Land (2009)

WHO: Minda Martin directed this.

WHAT: Since I haven't seen it, let me quote from Robert Koehler's review:
Martin's adventurous manipulation of complex sound work, solarized images, superimpositions and archival selections sets her work apart from other docs on the Native American experience; as terrible as her family history becomes, affected by a legacy of American subjugation of indigenous people, her telling of it is shot through with vital artistry.
WHERE/WHEN: Screening is at 7:00 PM tonight only at the Pacific Film Archive

WHY: This screens as part of Week 2 in the PFA's Documentary Voices series presented to the public in conjunction with a UC Berkeley course entitled History of Documentary Film taught by Linda Williams. Tonight's selections are all cherry-picked from the 2012 Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, programmed there by scholar Josetxo Cerdán. Along with Free Land two shorter works screen: Dustin Guy Defa's Family Nightmare and Ben Rivers' Ah, Liberty! I have not seen either, but I've seen enough of Rivers' work to know this is going to be a special evening. Other films playing upcoming Tuesday nights as part of this series include Chang (with Luis Buñuel's Land Without Bread), 48 (another Flaherty pick), and Werner Herzog's Into The Abyss.

HOW: Free Land and Family Nightmare will screen digitally, and Ah, Liberty! will screen in 16mm.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Samsara (2011)

WHO: Ron Fricke has cinematographer & director credit, as well as co-writer & co-editor credit.

WHAT: Fricke began his career as a cinematographer auspiciously. Having only shot 16mm before, he was brought on by Godfrey Reggio to photograph his ambitious nonverbal film Koyaanisqatsi. After the film's acclaimed 1982 release, Fricke left Reggio's crew, filming more non-verbal films Chronos and then Baraka as director. Samsara is his first film release in twenty years; in the meantime he has worked on other people's projects, notably George Lucas's Star Wars Episode III and Gary Leva's Fog City Mavericks.

I didn't have high expectations for Samsara when I first heard Fricke was releasing it. I found Baraka to be easy on the eyes of course, but rather facile in its approach to creating (as I said at the time) "a travelogue for spiritual seekers, or a sermon for the Lonely Planet set". Compared to that of Dziga Vertov or Warren Sonbert or Nathaniel Dorsky, Fricke's and Reggio's work seems outrageously ostentatious. Scott MacDonald has expressed admiration for the both filmmakers, particularly Reggio, but summarizes his limitations very well:
Reggio has been criticized for his naïveté in participating in the very patterns he pretends to abhor: Koyaansqatsi is an anti technology film but it was produced...with the most technologically advanced cinematic means available; Powaqqatsi sings the dignity of the laboring, third world individual but provides no information about the individuals filmed, rendering them socially decontextualized exotics;
MacDonald published the above to introduce an interview with Reggio in 1990, prior to Baraka's completion. But similar criticisms (and it should be stated that MacDonald's words are presented not as his own criticisms but as a condensing of others') could be leveled at Fricke's own work. I can't help but think that, by photographing the world's wonders in such an heroic and definitive manner, using the most impressive visual reproduction equipment known to exist, Fricke unwittingly gives us permission to collectively "forget about" the actual sites and instead fetishize his frozen-in-time images as replacements of reality.

When I finally viewed Samsara the experience overwhelmed all of these intellectual reservations. The visual patterns he captures are generally more astonishing than those in Baraka, and the music is more impressively integrated with image as well; I find it hard to believe that the score was composed to the edit, rather than the film cut to the music, but apparently it's so. I realized that the filmmaker Fricke is most indebted to here is not Vertov or Hilary Harris but Busby Berkeley (a revelation that inspired me to fire off this tweet.) But the most important leap forward for Fricke is that in tone. Although he doesn't escape the same hypocrisies MacDonald identified in Reggio's films, his camera trains on a more varied set of subjects than any of the films he'd previously worked on, with the result that more meanings explode off of each other's surfaces. It feels less like a glorified UNESCO promotional film, and closer to what I suspect the filmmakers were hoping to create: a demonstration of how, in this second decade of the 21st Century, all aspects of life and regions of the world are becoming increasingly interconnected, both for good and for ill. 

WHERE/WHEN: Today and tomorrow at 2:15 & 7:00 at the Castro Theatre

WHY: The Castro is making these Samsara screenings more enticing by placing the film on creative double-bills. I saw it paired with another investigation-of/product-of globalization Beau Travail last month. Tonight it plays with Akira Kurosawa's film that contemplated the human condition in an entirely different way in 1952, Ikiru (In my book it's Kurosawa's most overrated film but that doesn't make it not worth watching.) Tomorrow's pairing is with the 1984 Somerset Maugham adaptation The Razor's Edge, starring Bill Murray and Theresa Russell. I've never seen this one; I believe the last time the Castro (or in fact any Frisco Bay venue) screened it was in a 2006 series of 70mm prints.

HOW: 2K DCP Lincoln Spector has more to say about Samsara and the formats it's available on.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Nashville (1975)

WHO: Robert Altman's signature piece as a director.

WHAT: What is Nashville? Perhaps better to ask, what isn't Nashville? Majestic and subversive, angry and gentle, musical and talky and extraordinarily cinematic, this is a film that seems to have everything you might want from a movie, except for maybe F-14 dogfights (and it's been a few years since I've last seen it, so maybe I'm forgetting a scene when I say that.)

WHERE/WHEN: 1:00 PM and 7:30 PM today only at the Castro Theatre.

WHY: Nashville plays on a double-bill with Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, reminding us of a time when Hollywood made movies that were long for good reasons. These films depend on duration: every can of film is well worth its shipping cost. I'm not so sure some of today's long movies have goods reasons for their length; more like excuses enabled by the DCP delivery system. Anyway, I'm all for a double-bill like this, and hope it's enough of a success to inspire a sequel; I think Cimino's Heaven's Gate and Altman's A Wedding (for instance) would combine for a similar running time.

HOW: The Castro calendar includes this fearsome note on Nashville: "This may be your last chance to see this classic in 35mm at the Castro!"