Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

WHO: Buster Keaton starred in and directed it. He also, though uncredited, was involved as producer and editor. Keaton's friend and filmmaking mentor Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, at that time his career in tatters, is thought to have been an uncredited co-director on the film as well, and a good deal of speculative evidence for this is collected in a documentary found on the most recent Kino DVD & Blu-Ray editions of Sherlock Jr.

WHAT: Even Keaton's most financially successful films (such as The Navigator) could not compete with the worldwide box office success of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. And Sherlock Jr. was not one of Keaton's hits. Like The General it went fairly unappreciated in it's time (in this case even receiving a withering pan from Variety magazine) and only later found its reputation rescued by other filmmakers, surrealists, critics, and ultimately by repertory audiences and home video enthusiats. Today these two Keaton films are not only his most widely seen and re-seen films but probably the two most highly critically-regarded silent-era comedies around. 

Of the two, Sherlock Jr. is perhaps slightly less beloved. Its briefer length may hinder it's reputation with certain people used to feature films being at least an hour and a half long rather than about half that. But the film's runtime economy just makes it that more of a potently concentrated laugh package. Seeing it with an appreciative audience and a skilled and sensitive musical accompanist should convert any doubters who think its meta-cinematic allusions and illusions somehow get in the way of the comedy.

WHERE/WHEN: 4 00 today only at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum
WHY: As the closer to the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival Sherlock Jr. drives home the "For the Love of Film" theme tying most of this year's festival's programs together. It's the third of three "backlot comedies" to screen this weekend, after His Nibs last night and Show People Friday. 

I enjoyed attending the festival yesterday for the first time, seeing a selection of one- and two-reelers starring Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson, all made in Niles in 1913. My favorite was The Making of Broncho Billy, an origin story for an already-popular character that reminded me of pretty much every superhero movie made in Hollywood these days, only far less portentous. I hope to make this festival an annual stop on my calendar.

In the meantime, there are lots of terrific films playing at the Niles Film Museum as part of their weekly Saturday silent screening series. For now I'll highlight a few Bister Keaton's on the July-August program I picked up yesterday (not yet available online): Keaton's funniest two-reeler One Week screens July 13th along with shorts starring Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Laurel & Hardy. Then, on August 17th, it's Keaton's The High Sign, this time with films starring Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, and Charley Chase.

HOW: On (I believe) 35mm with a screening of the work print of the 2013 shot-in-Niles tribute Broncho Billy and the Bandit's Secret. Pianist David Drazin accompanies.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Absteigend (2012)

WHO: Paul Clipson is one of Frisco Bay's leading experimental filmmakers over the past decade or so. Even if you haven't heard of him you may have seen his handiwork as projectionist for SFMOMA until it closed earlier this month. This video shows him at work, and gives a glimpse of the remarkable storyboards he's created to assist reel changes.

WHAT: Clipson's Absteigend might be called a music video for a song on Evan Caminiti's Thrill Jockey album Dreamless Sleep, except that there's nothing "video" about it in its original form. Shot and processed using Super-8 film, this brief New York "city symphony" was one of the highlights of this Spring's Crossroads Festival put on by SF Cinematheque. Sophie Pinchetti puts it succinctly when she says the filmmaker "explores the melancholic beauty and solitude of the industrial cityscape". You can follow that last link and watch it online, but there's no substitute for seeing it in its "reel" form.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens tonight only at 8:00 PM at Artists' Television Access.

WHY: Tonight Absteigend screens as part of a full program of Clipson's recent film work, which will include a performance by Clipson and sound artist Marielle Jakobsons. The unique Artists' Television Access is an improbable survivor of multiple real-estate booms on the Valencia Street corridor, and one of the last neighborhood storefronts essentially retaining the same character it had twenty years ago. ATA is a perfect place to see small-gauge film and video that you'd be hard-pressed to see play at any other venue. Its July calendar includes documentaries Directing Dissent (about a political activist) and The Space Invaders: In Search of Lost Time (about arcade games) as well as a showcase for Oakland collective Elements of Image Making, an open screening and more.

HOW: Tonight's films screen as Super-8mm projections.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Show People (1928)

WHO: King Vidor directed this and Marion Davies starred in it.

WHAT: The release of Seth Rogen's This Is The End earlier this month sent many websites back to previous examples of Hollywood celebrities playing versions of themselves in fictional scenarios on film. These articles dutifully listed some of the most memorable examples of this device: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Airplane!, John Malkovich and Charlie Sheen in Being John Malkovich, half the credit list in The Player, Cecil B. DeMille in Sunset Blvd. etc. But they could have reached back much further for examples. In 1923, for instance, James Cruze made a film called Hollywood in which an aspiring actress played by Hope Drown tries to break into the movies; he enlisted practically every big name in Tinseltown to portray themselves; a very partial list includes Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle", Baby Peggy, Charlie Chaplin, DeMille and his director brother William C. de Mille, Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, Nita Naldi, Pola Negri, Jack and Mary Pickford, Zasu Pitts, Will Rogers, and Gloria Swanson.  Unfortunately Hollywood is considered a "lost film" - Kevin Brownlow has called it his most-sought missing title - so there's little record of just how large, or how funny, each of these cameo performances might have been.

The next best thing, perhaps, is Show People, prints of which fortunately do exist. Said to be based on Swanson's career trajectory, this is another aspiring actress comedy; it follows Peggy Pepper, played by Marion Davies, as she attempts to launch herself as a serious motion picture actress, but finding she has more of a gift for comedy. Again movie studio verisimilitude is lent by star cameos: Chaplin, Fairbanks and Hart once more, and joined by John Gilbert, Louella Parsons, Norma Talmadge, the film's own director King Vidor, and others. Even Davies gets to tweak her own star image, appearing as herself and having her talent disparaged via intertitle by Pepper!

WHERE/WHEN: Tonight on a bill starting at 8:00 at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.

WHY: Show People screens as part of the opening night of the 16th annual Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, a weekend showcase of silent-era filmmaking in the district of Niles (now a part of Fremont, California) where, a hundred years ago, the festival namesake Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson made a slew of one- and two-reel Westerns taking advantage of the small-town streets and rolling-hill landscapes. He wasn't the only star making films for the Essanay Film Company in those days, however; now-obscure performers like John Steppling and Arthur and Julia Mackley were among the others making films like Billy McGraph on Broadway and The Sheriff's Wife in 1913, and soon enough Charlie Chaplin would also be lured to Niles to make a half-dozen films including The Champion and The Tramp. Both Billy McGraph on Broadway and The Sheriff's Wife will screen with Show People this evening, and so will a brand-new film made in Niles using the technologies of 1913.

The Mercury News has just published an article on the festival that discusses this new film, originally to be called The Canyon, but now apparently titled Broncho Billy and the Bandit's Secret. It will screen again on Sunday to close the festival alongside Buster Keaton's meta masterpiece Sherlock Jr.  Between now and then about a dozen more films with screen throughout the weekend; Lotte Reiniger's feat of cut-out animation The Adventures of Prince Achmed, a five-film program of original 1913 "Broncho Billy" films, and a Colleen Moore vehicle directed by Gregory La Cava called His Nibs are among the notable highlights. I plan to attend this festival for the first time this year.

I first saw Show People at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which is also where I saw Davies and Vidor's follow-up film The Patsy, another underrated comedy gem from 1928. Niles researcher, programmer and projectionist David Kiehn wrote an excellent essay on the latter film for the festival program book when it played in 2008. Next month The Patsy reprises at the 2013 SFSFF, the only repeat-performance feature in a program of nearly two-dozen films made all over the world. All silent programs at both the Niles and the San Francisco festivals will be accompanied by live music. If you've never been exposed to the comic genius of Marion Davies you should at least attend Show People tonight and The Patsy July 19th. But it's hard to sample one silent program presented this way and not get the urge to stay for many more!

HOW: 16mm print, along with three short films screened in 35mm, all accompanied by Bruce Loeb on piano.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

I Walked With A Zombie (1943)

WHO: Val Lewton is credited as the producer and uncredited as a writer on this.

WHAT: It sounds like the basest of exploitation films from its title, but say I Walked With A Zombie enough times and you eventually may hear in it the poetry that Lewton and his director Jacques Tourneur were able to imbue into the film itself. Yes it deals with the supernatural but in perhaps the most elegant and honest way imaginable in a film. Lewton was tasked with creating low-cost films to compete with the iconic and incredibly popular monsters of the Universal House of Horrors, which in the 1940s was given to team-up films like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, privileging characters over genuine chills. Lewton's studio RKO had no properties suitable for such treatment (how can you make a King Kong movie for less than $150,000?), which was all the better for Lewton: he applied his imagination and drew inspiration from his own biography (Cat People, his first film, in some ways mirrored his personal history as a Crimea-born immigrant from a Jewish-turned-Russian Orthodox family, who became baptized as Episcopalian upon arrival in the US) and from public-domain literature.

I Walked With A Zombie is loosely an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, transposed to a fictitious Caribbean isle called Saint Sebastian. If it shares (as some commentators have noted) similarities to Alfred Hitchcock's Eyre-esque Rebecca, it wouldn't be a surprise as Lewton assisted in that Oscar-winning film's production while at his previous Hollywood job working under mega-producer David O. Selznick. But I Walked With A Zombie is, in my book, a better film than Rebecca. It packs twice as much eerieness and overwhelming mood into half the running time of the Hitchcock film, and includes unique-for-its-time commentary on relations between whites and blacks, and one group's relative obliviousness to the other. It's a masterpiece for all these reasons and more.

WHERE/WHEN: Today and tomorrow at the Stanford Theatre at 7:30.

WHY: Although David Packard and his film booking team behind the Stanford have been known to program films based on current events (such as timing a run of the 1951 musical Royal Wedding with Prince William's), I can't remember ever detecting any acknowledgement of current Hollywood trends in the venue's programming choices. After all, the Stanford devotes its screen entirely to films made before the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential administration (with the very occasional exception made for a few certain favored filmmakers like Howard HawksAkira KurosawaKatharine Hepburn and Satyajit Ray). Why should they notice what's playing at the multiplexes in nearby Redwood City or Mountain View?

But today's double bill of two Lewton-produced films, I Walked With A Zombie and Isle of the Dead (a film about a plague and quarantine in Greece, and inspired by an Arnold Böcklin painting that is seen hanging in I Walked With A Zombie as well), seems somehow calculated as a response to the nation's current #2 movie at the box office, which has already in one week brought in more raw dollars (not adjusted for inflation) than any other zombie movie released in US history. I haven't seen World War Z so perhaps I should refrain from snide judgments- although I've never been a fan of its director Marc Forster. I Walked With A Zombie was a big box office hit in its day as well, and likely was sneered at sight unseen by certain moviegoers, and it lives on today as a cult classic appreciated both by horror fans and art-movie lovers.

More films appealing to arthouse and horror audiences playing on Frisco Bay this summer include Cat People, booked at the Stanford August 21-23 on a double-bill with the decidedly-non-horror (but exquisitely beautiful) Lewton picture Curse of the Cat People. The Castro Theatre brings a July 12th double-bill of The Exorcist (by avowed Lewton aficionado William Friedkin) in DCP, and a 35mm print of Dario Argento's Suspiria. The day before that another Castro bill places Charles Laughton's 1955 Night of the Hunter, which I dare say might be called Lewtonesque, with a film by another Lewton fan, Martin Scorsese; it's his 1991 remake of Cape Fear; both of these in 35mm. Horror is practically the only major genre not included on Silent Film Festival program, which brings comedies, dramas, a Western and a Scandinavian "Northern" to the Castro July 18-21. So the Balboa Theatre's July 13th screening of Paul Wegener's The Golem will have to suffice for silent film fans eager to see early precursors to the horrors of Universal and Lewton.

The Roxie, meanwhile, is showing another Dario Argento classic on 35mm: Tenebre, which like Suspiria was scored by the members of the band Goblin (who is making a stop at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco October 20th as part of its first-ever North American tour; tickets go on sale tomorrow). They also screen Berberian Sound Studio tonight (it's last night of a week-long run) and, as part of the Frozen Film Festival, a documentary about the making of Rosemary's Baby.

Finally, the Mission Street restaurant Foreign Cinema is showing Rebecca nightly from July 19 through August 4th. I've never actually attended this venue, and am not sure if they still show 35mm prints as they did when they first opened in 1999, nor whether it's at all a worthwhile place to watch a movie- most reports I've heard say the films are really used as no more than ambiance for the dinner experience; in other words it's no New Parkway. But I'd like to hear from anyone who has had experiences eating and trying to watch a movie there.

HOW: I Walked With A Zombie screens on a 35mm double-bill with Isle of the Dead.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Nénette And Boni (1996)

WHO: Agnès Godard was cinematographer for this.

WHAT: Matt Connolly calls this Claire Denis-directed film "not quite as formally or thematically adventurous as some of her work" but I'm not so sure. Just because Nénette And Boni holds up as a straightforward narrative in ways that perhaps L'Intrus cannot, doesn't mean its design and its filming didn't involve just as much experimentation as any of the films in her career. Janet Bergstrom, in her essay "Opacity in the Films of Claire Denis", identifies Nénette And Boni as a turning point in Denis and Godard's visual approach, more suited to "a film about solitary people rather than a group". She notes that longer lenses than the pair had used before
allowed for an oscillation of point of view in which a floating, imaginary vision intersects seamlessly with literal point of view shots or with "objective shots," thanks also to the tremendous variation in strategies between fixed and moving shots, using a camera that rested on the shoulder rather than a Steadycam.
The space between sleep/dreaming and wakefulness is captured more clearly in this film than in perhaps any of Denis's others, an achievement that fans out thematically in many directions as well. And it's perhaps no other element than Godard's camera, taking pictures like the one in the above screen capture (if you don't remember the scene from the film, imagine a soundtrack made by a Krups coffee-alarm), that makes this possible.

WHERE/WHEN: Tonight only at 7:00 at the Pacific Film Archive.

WHY: When Agnès Godard was in town a week and a half ago to present PFA screenings of five of the films she shot, including two for Denis, Michael Fox was able to sit down for an interview in which he asked her which directors she wished she could have worked with had their careers overlapped with hers. Though Godard is perhaps best-known for her work with women (she's shot films for Wim Wenders, Erick Zonca, Claude Berri, André Téchiné, but it's her consistent collaborations with women - Denis, Catherine Corsini, Ursula Meier - are what more cinephiles think of when her name comes to mind) she made a list only of men: Hitchcock, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Renoir, Bresson, Huston and the Lumière brothers. On the other hand, it's hard to think of many women directors who held comparable stature as filmmakers during these film titans' heydays.

At the time I'm posting, you can also hear Moira Sullivan's interview on issue of 1171 of Movie Magazine International by clicking their web site. Sullivan spoke to Godard about, among other things, her latest collaboration with Denis, Les Salauds a.k.a. Bastards, which I hope won't take too long to make it's way to a Frisco Bay theatre.

In the meantime, there are two more Godard-credited films on the PFA summer docket: Ozu tribute 35 Shots of Rum this Friday June 28th, and Jacquot, Agnès Varda's tribute to her husband Jacques Demy, on July 31st.

HOW: 35mm print

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Two Girls Against The Rain (2012)

WHO: Sopheak Sao directed this.

WHAT: I've only seen a few brief online clips of this short-as-it-is documentary, but from what I've seen it looks like a sincere portrait of two lesbians in Cambodia who have been a couple since the days of the Khmer Rouge, in the face of family and societal pressure for them to deny their identities.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens tonight only at 7PM at the Victoria Theatre, as part of a Frameline festival.

WHY: I went to three Frameline screenings over the weekend, all at the Castro Theatre. Briefly, I enjoyed But I'm A Cheerleader but was perhaps hoping for a bit more depth to it, especially after seeing how rich I found the preceding short film by its director Jamie Babbit, Sleeping Beauties. Big Joy: the Adventures of James Broughton, however, was about all I could ask for in a documentary about an experimental filmmaker. The interviews with friends and family were fascinating and often poignant. The archival footage (both from his films and from the contextualizing era) was generously excerpted, and some of it was in the "deep cuts" category (I suppose I could quibble a bit about some of the image quality and identification labels, but this honestly felt minor). I felt like no major aspect of Broughton's life was glossed over, and though I've read a fair bit about his filmmaking and far less about his poetry, I learned quite a bit about both. 

Finally, though I don't feel like naming A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge a new personal favorite (I'll grant it superiority over the film it sequelizes), I was thrilled to finally see Pecahes Christ's Midnight Mass return to its proper witching-hour time slot, and was dazzled by the creativity and panache of her slickly-designed and choreographed pre-show performance, which filled the Castro stage perfectly; I'd previously only seen her stage shows at the too-snug Bridge and Victoria Theatres, and while more enjoyably homespun, they could never quite reach the arch outrageousness of this weekend's winking performance. Oh, and the interview with Mark Patton was pretty good too.

There's still almost a full week of Frameline screenings left in the festival, but I feel remiss not having already linked to the previews by Tony An and Adam Hartzell of some of the many Asian-made films in this year's program, most of which still have at least one screening. After several years of relatively slim selections of LGBT films from East Asia, this year's program has multiple films from several countries across the Pacific Rim from us, including South Korea, Thialand Cambodia mainland China and Taiwan, and a film apiece from Vietnam, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and even the festival's first-ever selection from the (less East, more inland) country of Nepal.

 Two Girls Against the Rain screens on a program called Between Ring And Pendant, named for a Hong Kong short in the program, which is described by Frameline thusly:
This stellar collection of Asian & Pacific Islander shorts take us on a journey across the Pacific Rim and back to the Bay Area with fearless tomboys, aspiring pop divas, and some deeply complicated familial bonds.
HOW: Digital presentation of a digitally-produced doc. The only remaining film in this year's Frameline festival program expected to screen on film is The Shower, a Chilean film from 2010 screening in tomorrow night's program Tu Recuerdo.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Frances Ha (2012)

WHO: Greta Gerwig co-wrote and stars in this film directed by Noah Baumbach.

WHAT: I'd heard this was a comedy, and perhaps it is in the grand scheme of things; there's is a lightness to the tone of the film and, at least externally, to the character of Frances, around whom the entire film revolves. But I'm not sure I laughed out loud once, although I appreciated the liberal-art-educated wit exhibited by most of the characters. No, what I felt instead of mirth while watching this was the pang of recognition -- though I'm not much like Frances in many ways, I've certainly been 27 years old and felt the kind of anxiety about becoming "truly" adult that she exhibits. Followed by the heartbreak of her self-sabotaging instincts, and finally the joyful relief of seeing her edge towards growth.

A few words on negative reviews, which are not hard to come by. I'll leave aside Armond White's axe-grinding and skip to Nathan Heller's eloquent expression of disappointment, which reads alternatingly like the voice of a twenty-something finding something fraudulent in this portrayal of his  age group, and like a "middle-aged man" wanting to hammer down all the film's most distinctive traits (unusual pacing, time and story compression) into something more "mature" and palatable. (It turns out Heller is older than Gerwig but younger than Baumbach and than me- but not by much.) And although I of course sensed that the film is evoking a French New Wave spirit, I didn't get as much of a sense that it was being glib or overly specific with references; I didn't think of any of the films Ben Sachs mentions; the only Nouvelle Vague film title that entered my mind while watching was Jacques Rivette's Paris Belongs To Us, and I'm not quite sure why that one felt invoked.

I should note I haven't seen the film that the greatest number of reviews I've found (including perhaps my favorite, Fernando F. Croce's) mention as a directly-quoted referent: Leos Carax's 1986 Mauvais Sang, which is apparently quoted in the pictured-above scene of Frances dashing across Manhattan to the piano-grand rhythm of of David Bowie's "Modern Love". Between this and Holy Motors I'm now desperate to see more of Carax's work, hopefully at a retrospective at a local cinema, some time soon.

WHERE/WHEN: Multiple showtimes daily at various Frisco Bay theatres including the Embarcadero, the Kabuki, the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, the Shattuck in Berkeley, the UA Emery Bay in Emeryville, and the BlueLight Cinemas 5 in Cupertino, at least through Thursday. On Friday at least one of these engagements (the Embarcadero's, see below) ends, and Francis Ha will move to the Opera Plaza for a couple shows daily.

WHY: I saw Frances Ha at the Embarcadero knowing it would almost certainly be my last film watched there before it shuts down thus Friday. No, this is not another closure like that of the Bridge and Lumiere last fall, but rather a four month renovation to the downtown five-screener, rumored to include an upgrade to stadium-style seating and to be unveiled in early November.

I've never had a great attachment to the Embarcadero Cinema as a structure; it lacks the charm of the single-screen arthouses it helped put out of business after it was opened in 1995. But since then it's been the most convenient and consistent place for anyone living near a BART or MUNI Metro stop or working in the financial district to see a high-profile independent film on a decent-sized screen. I must've seen over a hundred films there myself, starting with John Sayles' Lone Star. Perhaps most memorably I once watched a noontime matinee of Run, Lola, Run on an only-slightly extended, adrenaline-packed lunch hour while temping in a nearby office tower.

The main impact this closure will have is in reducing by half (and compared to this time last year, nearly two-thirds) the number of the Landmark Theatre chain screens showing indie fare in San Francisco. Almost undoubtedly this will mean fewer real "niche" titles will get  even week-long releases in the city proper, as the Opera Plaza (which is expected to convert from 35mm film & Blu-Ray presentation to DCP any week now) will likely have its screens full handling the kinds of films that might have played the Embarcadero this summer and autumn if it were open. Nothing could make this clearer than the fact that the entire slate of films currently at the Opera Plaza, including Mud, Kon-Tiki and Kings of Summer in 35mm prints, will be pulled after this Thursday to make room for most of the titles currently screening the Embarcadero, including Before Midnight (which will be brought in as a 35mm print), The East, A Hijacking, and Frances Ha. 

HOW: Frances Ha was shot digitally and will screen in DCP, I believe, everywhere listed above, except for the BlueLight Cinema 5 and the Opera Plaza, which are not yet equipped for DCP. Staffers I talked to at both venues were incredulous when I told them that Camera 3 in San Jose reportedly (as per the Film on Film Foundation's Bay Area Film Calendar) screened this in a 35mm print last week.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

WHO: Hayao Miyazaki directed this.

WHAT: One of the best of the feature film animated at Studio Ghibli (the company name makes a cameo on the side of the bus in the above scene), and the biggest box-office success of all Japanese films released in 1989. Its tale of a young (benevolent) witch in training is one of the most affecting girl-empowerment fables committed to the screen.

WHERE/WHEN: Today only at the Pacific Film Archive at 4:00 PM.

WHY: Starting with last week's screening of Castle In the Sky, the PFA's  Studio Ghibli series brings 35mm prints of the majority of Miyazaki and his cohort's beloved films to Berkeley every Sunday this summer. Most of the screenings will employ Japanese versions of these films, with English subtitles. These versions are widely considered superior by fans, as there's no doubt some of the versions prepared for American release employ distracting dub jobs involving Hollywood celebrities. For me, Princess Mononke is the worst offender of these, and I'm glad the PFA is planning to show the subtitled version instead on July 28; when the film screened at the Bridge last fall the version with Billy Bob Thornton giving his unmistakeable twang to the character Jigo was unfortunately was the one screened.

The four exceptions to the PFA's plan of showing these films with their original soundtracks are Howl's Moving Castle and (in my opinion the least-distracting of the Americanized Ghibli dubs) My Neighbor Totoro, both showing in August, next week's Ponyo (which I don't believe has ever screened on Frisco Bay in an English-subtitled 35mm print), and Kiki's Delivery Service today. This is not one of the best or the worst of the English-dubbed Ghibli versions out there; it may take a while to get used to hearing Phil Hartman voicing Kiki's cat Jiji, but for the most part he does a good job keeping his performance restrained. This familiar may have a familiar voice, but it ought not bring to mind any particular Hartman character from Saturday Night Live or the Simpsons or the rest of his career. There are some changed musical cues on the Americanized soundtrack.

Even these compromised versions are worth seeing on the big screen however. In fact, I think each of them should be seen at least once by any Ghibli fan not fluent in Japanese. When spending portions of time during a film looking at subtitles, even a fast reader can miss some of the detail and even the kineticism of the beautifully animated images, and for me it's usually a very acceptable trade-off to have an "impure" soundtrack experience if I can watch the whole frame for the whole movie. For me, this rule applies to high-quality animation far more than to live-action films, where I really long to hear the voices of the actor I'm seeing on screen. But those who extend their dislike of "dubbing" in cinema to Japanese animation might keep in mind that virtually all animation released in that country is in fact "dubbed"- in Japanese. I've written a bit about this here and here and don't want to repeat myself, but it seems relevant to this discussion.

HOW: 35mm print of the English-dubbed version of Kiki's Delivery Service.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton (2013)

WHO: As you might guess from the film's title, San Francisco filmmaker and poet James Broughton is the subject of this documentary.

WHAT: I've yet to see Big Joy but it's getting rave reviews everywhere this week: Jackson ScarletMIchael Guillén, Dennis Harvey and even Peter Wong of the Chronicle all have made it one of their top picks of the Frameline Film Festival. And that's on top of the terrific reviews and interviews linked on the film's website. I don't feel I can add much to the conversation, certainly not before seeing it.

But having seen most of Broughton's films either in 16mm prints presented at local screening venues or on the Facets DVD, and hearing that Big Joy includes generous clips from his work, I'll talk a but about three of my favorites of his films, each from a different phase of his career.

Four In The Afternoon was made in 1951, just after the publication of his third book of poetry Musical Chairs. Each of its four parts places dancers in a different San Francisco location ("Game Little Gladys" is Telegraph Hill and "The Gardener's Son" is Sutro Heights) for a fine frolic reminiscent of the more balletic aspects of silent film comedy, accompanied by a soundtrack of lovely music and the voice of Broughton reciting one of his poems. Of particular note is the third section "Princess Printemps" in which dance legends Anna Halprin and 
Welland Lathrop enact a flirtation amidst the Palace of Fine Arts structures left behind by the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

High Kukus was made in in 1973, five years after Broughton's return to filmmaking (with the groundbreaking The Bed) after a fifteen-year hiatus. It's a very brief (3 minute) iris shot of a shimmering blue pond in Golden Gate Park's Japanese Tea Garden, casting reflections of the trees above and rippling with the rhythms of nature (we hear birds and frogs chirping) as Broughton recites what he called "cuckoo haikus" in homage to Zen poet Basho. Though the image brings to my mind the work of Bruce Baillie, Chick Strand and Nathaniel Dorsky, I've found that both experimental film diehards and people completely unschooled in the (here's a misnomer but handy one) "avant-garde tradition" get a great amount of joy from this one.

The Gardener of Eden is from 1981, during the "Joel Singer period" in which Broughton collaborated as a filmmaker with one of his San Francisco Art Institute students. Between 1976 and 1988 Broughton and Singer made eight films; this one was filmed when the couple were living on a Sri Lankan rubber plantation, and is so aesthetically dense and thematically multilayered as to deserve a full explication- perhaps book-length. But for now I'll just mention a few facts and formal generalizations: here Broughton's recited poetry is found only at the beginning and ending, bookending (after an opening thundercrack) a conch-shell musical performance credited to Antarjyami Muni. Between its pulsating tones and the rapid cutting and zooming of Singer's camera, upon palms and aloe vera leaves, upon dozens of young Sinhalese men and boys, but most especially on the piercing gaze of the elderly Bevis Bawa, the island nation's most famous horticulturist.

I don't know if these films will be excerpted in Big Joy or if more attention will be paid to famous films like The Potted Psalm, Mother's Day and The Bed. But I can't wait to find out!

WHERE/WHEN: Today only at the Castro Theatre at 4:00, as part of Frameline 37.

WHY: If Big Joy is as good as I'm hoping, it will be a great pump-primer for audiences to get excited about other experimental work at this year's Frameline festival. Though in an ideal world the festival would have included a full program of retrospective works by Broughton in the festival, or at least scheduled a screening of one of his shorts to play before this afternoon's Castro screening (though it may be that none are distributed on 35mm or DCP, the Castro's favored formats now that they no longer have a 16mm projector installed), I'm hoping this only means Frameline will co-present a retrospective to coincide with Broughton's centennial this November, perhaps with Canyon Cinema, which is co-presenting today's screening. 

If you click the "experimental" tag on the Frameline website you get 37 titles listed, most shorts. Of these, the most promising to me seem to be the works by experimental video artists Kadet Kuhne and Texas Tomboy screening under the banner Sexperimental this Wednesday, and the Rats In Glitter compilation of new experimental shorts by Vika Kirchenbauer, Jonesy, and other modern makers. Both of these screenings happen at the Roxie.

Other experimental film screenings I'm aware of this summer (usually a comparatively dry period with school out and both Other Cinema and SF Cinematheque on seasonal hiatus) include a June 29th Artists' Television Access screening of films by Paul Clipson, and performances by Vanessa O'Neill and Kent Long (a.k.a. Beige), and by the aforementioned Kuhne at the relatively newly-formed Shapeshifters Cinema in Oakland.

HOW: Digital screening.

Friday, June 21, 2013

But I'm A Cheerleader (1999)

WHO: Jamie Babbit directed this.

WHAT: I have not seen But I'm A Cheerleader and am not really interested in reading review of it before seeing it, but I can't help but notice that critical notices are decidedly mixed. Yet I've been aware of the film and its cult following for years. I was probably sold on seeing it by the clips from it used in Kirby Dick's This Film Is Not Yet Rated documentary, in which director Babbit is interviewed about the hetero-normative hypocrisy institutionalized at the MPAA, the Hollywood ratings board that does so much to determine the financial fate of independent films.

I understand the film is a comedy that satirizes the ex-gay movement. What better time to see it than this week, after the big announcements made by Alan Chambers of the soon-to-be-defunct Exodus International

WHERE/WHEN: Today only at the Castro Theatre at 11:00 AM, presented by Frameline

WHY: I don't generally attend a lot of films screened at the Frameline festival each year, but I try to sample at least a couple programs. For many reasons I'm particularly attracted to retrospective programs, which the festival has a long and rather illustrious history of presenting. For one, these are films that didn't just impress festival programmers and press in the heat of the moment, but have stood the test of time with audiences and (if there's a new print involved in the presentation) archivists. For someone wary of plunking down hard-earned cash for a film that sounds intriguing but is ultimately an unknown quantity, the risk-to-reward ratio of attending a retrospective screening is very favorable. 

Past years have given me chances to see (off the top of my head) Lizzie Borden's Born In Flames, a selection of Canyon Cinema-distributed experimental films by filmmakers like George Kuchar, James Broughton, Coni Beeson, etc., and a showing of the 1958 version of Mädchen in Uniform introduced by film historian and maker Jenni Olson (whose last feature was the first I reviewed on this blog eight years ago, and whose next is currently in crowd-funding mode).

The last two years have offered particularly memorable experiences: seeing a landmark film from the 1990s that I'd never seen before, in a Castro Theatre filled with other newbies but outnumbered by longtime fans, able to see a 35mm print of a favorite and ask questions of the director in person; two years ago it was Jennie Livingston showing Paris Is Burning and last year it was Alex Sichel and her Riot grrrl-era romance All Over Me. Today's screening has a lot to live up to match those, but with But I'm A Cheerleader's producer Andrea Sperling (who has also produced multiple films by Greg Araki and Jon Moritsugu) and its director Jamie Babbit expected to be on hand, it just might. Both women are expected to return to the Castro tomorrow as well (joined by screenwriter Guinevere Turner ) for Babbit's presentation of the annual Frameline Award, and a screening of their newest film Breaking The Girls. 

HOW: But I'm A Cheerleader is expected to screen in 35mm, and be preceded by a 35mm short made by Babbit (and Sperling) in 1998 called Sleeping Beauties.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)

WHO: David Bowie stars, Buck Henry (pictured), Candy Clark and Rip Torn support, and Nicolas Roeg directs.

WHAT: This non-escapist science fiction film was Bowie's first role as an actor, and may be the most delicate of Roeg's works. Whether you find it an entrancing masterpiece or a pretentious bore may depend largely on your circumstances when seeing it; I thought it was pretty close to the latter category upon my first viewing nearly twenty years ago, but that was a version cut down by twenty minutes. If you think it's paradoxical to think of a longer cut of a film as better-paced than a shorter cut, think of the endless examples where it is (you may not agree with everything on this list but then again you might).

One fan of the film, at least of an aspect of the film central to his own cinematic interests, was activist and film historian Vito Russo, who throughout the 1980s frequently cited it as one the few examples of commercial cinema to depict a gay character in a way that was neither stigmatizing nor patronizing. He wrote in his chapter on the 1970s in The Celluloid Closet
Homosexuality was almost never incidental or second nature to a screen character; after all, sexuality was always the reason for using a gay character in the first place. In fact, except for the hitchhiking funny lesbian ecology freaks (Helena Kallianiotes and Toni Basil) whom Karen Black and Jack Nicholson pick up in Five Easy Pieces (1970), Buck Henry's incidentally gay lawyer to Davdi Bowie's alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) and Robert Altman's unobtrusively integrated, happy lesbian couple (Heather MacRae and Tomi-Lee Bradley) in A Perfect Couple (1979), American cinema was unable to portray gay characters without their being sex-obsessed or sex-defined.
The fact that The Man Who Fell To Earth was actually a British-produced film that happened to be filmed and released in the United States makes his comment all the more damning to Hollywood portrayals of the era.

WHERE/WHEN: Tonight only at the Pacific Film Archive at 7:00.

WHY: Though the PFA's recurring A Theatre Near You programming was conceived of to bring new restorations and art-cinema releases that bypassed the dwindling East Bay arthouse screens during recent commercial releases, and indeed this Saturday's screening of Buñuel's Tristana (on DCP rather than Blu-Ray as when it played in San Francisco in January) fits this bill, it seems the philosophy behind the "series" (which I've sometimes called a "non-series" due to its eclecticism) seems to have shifted somewhat. Now it seems to be more of a catch basin for any film that hasn't been able to be fit into any other recent PFA series (like the ongoing Studio Ghibli and Agnès Godard sets or the upcoming programs devoted to Eastern European classics and Raoul Walsh) but would likely appeal to PFA audiences. Which is fine. It means films like The Man Who Fell To Earth and the Mill and the Cross, both of which screened down the hill at the Shattuck in the Fall of 2011, have another excuse to unspool in 35mm. 

Though tonight's screening probably indicates that no Nicolas Roeg retrospective is planned for the PFA anytime soon (might I suggest he's a tad overdue for one?), later this year the venue will be hosting at least three more retrospectives devoted to great auteurs of the 1970s. Last month I mentioned that William Friedkin is expected in town for an (at least partially) in-person retrospective in September. Since then I've received a fundraising letter from the institution that tipped off a couple more: one for Pier Paolo Pasolini (whose last PFA retro was almost six years ago and very incomplete) and one for Rainer Werner Fassbinder, which I hear will include his entire filmography, and will be mirrored in San Francisco by complimentary Fassbinder screenings at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Roxie Cinema this Fall (this is confirmed by a note at the bottom of the latter's summer calendar, in case you haven't been eagle-eyed to catch it already.)

Friedkin. Pasolini. Fassbinder. All three factor into Russo's The Celluloid Closet, but only Friedkin gets more of a mention than The Man Who Fell To Earth does. Russo has frequently been criticized for not factoring the work of gay European auteurs into his thesis about the inadequacy of cinema to provide images of gay and lesbian characters that queer and queer-friendly audiences could be proud of. Such criticism seem oblivious to the fact that, as Michael Schiavi points out, The Celluloid Closet was in fact a reaction against a previous text about homosexual portrayals in cinema, Parket Tyler's Screening The Sexes, which looked more closely at examples from the avant-garde and the European "art cinema" tradition than it did the Hollywood Russo as more interested in for multiple reasons.

Friedkin, on the other hand, was discussed extensively by Russo, thanks to two particular films in his ouevre: The Boys In The Band and Cruising, which bookended the 1970s and in a way defined the decade vis-a-vis Hollywood's role in the national conversations about gays in that era, at least according to Russo's persuasive telling of it. For my part I've never seen The Boys In The Band and hope it's among the films the PFA brings as part of its Friedkin retro. I have seen the more controversial Cruising, and while it's probably my least favorite of the director's films, that doesn't make it not worth watching, or revisiting (it will be part of the PFA series in the fall, I'm told).

I'm getting around to the fact that the twin shadows of Russo and Cruising loom over the so-called "Cannes  of gay film festivals" (a title surely no less applicable even after last month's Cannes victory for a lesbian-themed film entitled Blue Is The Warmest Color), which begins tonight: Frameline. Russo because his always does; he was in 1986 the first recipient of the Frameline Award (this year going to Jamie Babbit) was the subject of last year's festival-opening documentary Vito, and because to this day there is probably no greater inspiration to LGBT filmmaking than the groundwork he laid with The Celluloid Closet. Vito's director Jeffrey Schwartz screens his new biographical doc I Am Divine (about the John Waters actor fetiche, naturally) at the Castro this Sunday afternoon.

Later that night the same venue will play host to Interior. Leather Bar., Travis Mathews & James Franco's exploration of the Cruising mythology, which apparently attempts to imagine what Friedkin's cutting-room floor may have gathered during the editing of that film to avoid an 'X' rating. And you thought Cruising was provocative?

I'll have more to say about Frameline over the next few days (here's my previous post from when the line-up was announced), but for now, I'm off to the PFA to see The Man Who Feel To Earth.

HOW: 35mm print of the full 140-minute version.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Roman Holiday (1953)

WHO: William Wyler directed this.

WHAT: I had the pleasure of interviewing Wyler's daughter Judy Wyler Sheldon back in 2007; she resides locally and can sometimes be spotted at screenings of her father's work (most recently I saw her at the Noir City presentation of his 1931 A House Divided). Here's an excerpt from that interview, in which she talks about spending a summer in Rome with her parents while Roman Holiday was made.
It was the first movie he made in Europe on location, and I guess it was the first big Hollywood movie that had been made in Rome. I remember my parents saying how the city authorities leaned over backwards to make it easy for them to film there, closing off streets and all the stuff that's much harder to get done today. My father had just the most wonderful time, and my mother as well, living there while making this movie. 
WHERE/WHEN: Tonight through Tuesday, June 25 at the Stanford Theatre, with nightly screenings at 7:30 and additional 3:15 shows on Saturday and Sunday.

WHY: The Stanford's summer calendar is now available online, and although I've already written a general preview of the summer selections, there are plenty of further titles worth highlighting. William Wyler fans should certainly take note of the August 24-27 booking of the director's 1933 Counselor-At-Law, Audrey Hepburn fans should likewise take note of The Nun's Story August 14-16 along with this week's screenings.

I've never watched them in close enough succession to understand why, but I've long had an unexplained suspicion that there's some kind of primal connection between Roman Holiday and Roberto Rossellini's 1954 with Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, Voyage To Italy a.k.a. Journey To Italy. Perhaps the Rossellini film is the artistic obverse of Wyler's Hollywood classic? I'm not sure, but this week seems like a good one to investigate this hunch, as a new DCP version of Voyage To Italy screens at the Rafael Film Center tomorrow and Sunday (and the first Rossellini/Bergman collaboration Stromboli screens there Sunday and next Thursday), while Roman Holiday plays at the Stanford.

HOW: On a 35mm Audrey Hepburn double bill with Billy Wilder's Sabrina.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (1998)

WHO: Terry Gilliam directed this.

WHAT: This psychedelic adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's scalding portrait of American decline at the end of the 1960s is the last Terry Gilliam film that I really enjoyed, and it seems hard to believe it was released into multiplexes fifteen years ago. (I saw it at the Kabuki.) Gilliam's back-cover blurb for Bob McCabe's book Dark Knights and Holy Fools seems all the more poignant to a (former) fan in hindsight:
When Bob approached me about this book I was in the middle of making Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. As I continued with that movie, it started to become clear to me that it was a culmination of many things for me, maybe even a natural end to one stage of my work. So now seemed like a good time to look back at what we've been doing all these years.
WHERE/WHEN: Today only at the Castro Theatre at 4:35 and 9:35.

WHY: This is precisely the kind of film that made for a perfect revival at the Red Vic Movie House, which shut its doors and removed its 35mm projector a little under two years ago. So it seems a good time to mention that the Haight Street space is in the midst of preparing for it's second act, literally: it'll be turned into a performance space called Second Act that is expected to include screenings (on video, presumably) as part of its repertoire. Check its Facebook page for details and updates.

It also seems like a good time to mention a few screenings and series that may appeal to the, shall I say, "impaired" moviegoer. Former Market Street movie palace the Warfield is having a rare screening in the midst of its usual fare of live concerts and comedy performances. This Saturday it shows Jay And Silent Bob's Super Groovy Cartoon Movie, featuring characters created by Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes, who will be on hand (live in person, I think, though promotional materials don't 100% clear that it won't be a live-by-digital hookup situation) for a Q&A. I'm not a Kevin Smith, but I'm a little tempted to attend just so I can say I've seen a movie in the venue that played the likes of Gone With the Wind and Spellbound in the classic Hollywood era, more cultish hits like The Hobbit and Dawn of the Dead during the 1970s, and where I've seen concerts from musicians from Tears For Fears to George Clinton to Einstürzende Neubauten.

The Landmark Clay Theatre continues to run midnight movies all summer long (this weekend is Jaws) and while their recently-installed digital projection system has precluded the use of 35mm projectors or prints, several of the shows attempt to make up for that with live elements, including an appearance by author JT Leroy at a June 28 showing of Asia Argento's The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. Other bookings include the Frisco premiere of horror anthology V/H/S/2 and monthly showings of Tommy Wiseau's The Room. In case scotchka is your favorite method of impairment. The Camera 3 in San Jose has its own midnight/cult movie series, and is the last Frisco Bay venue that still regularly shows The Room and The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 35mm.

I definitely get a sense from the programming of this summer's sets of outdoor movie screenings (those in Marin and San Francisco are tracked at this website) that they've opted to pick movies less likely to bring audiences who like to flout open-container laws and send wafts of funny smoke into the atmosphere, than in some previous years. But these (all-digital) projections seem worth mentioning as well as the season gets underway.

But the Castro itself has more "cult movies" to show after tonight as well. Tomorrow it's Repo Man, on a 35mm double-bill with one of director Alex Cox's inspirations, Kiss Me Deadly. The 37th Frameline festival starts there the next day, and includes among its lineup the long-awaited return of Peaches Christ to midnight-movie hosting duties as she presents the (I've been told) surprisingly queer A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddie's Revenge starring "scream queen" Mark Patton. Of what we know of the Castro line-up after Frameline ends June 30th, the most relevant selections to this theme appear to be the horror movies screening in early July: Jaws on the 3rd of the month, and Suspiria and The Exorcist paired on the 12th.

HOW: On a 35mm double-bill with Oliver Stone's The Doors.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Gideon's Army (2013)

WHO: Dawn Porter directed this.

WHAT: I haven't seen this documentary about Deep South public defenders 50 years after the Earl Warren Supreme Court's landmark Gideon v. Wainwright decision, so let me quote from a review by Tambay A. Obenson:
The minimalist, verite-style documentary is free of any embellishments - even a soundtrack, except for the occasional muted drone or beats. Director Porter simply documents the action, on camera, sans voiceover narration, or any visual gimmicks. She doesn't lead the audience nor insert herself into the picture, which I appreciated, as it could've lessened the impact audiences would experience of this rather cold, stark, all-consuming, even dangerous and potentially depressing world that the film's subjects exist in - both the public defenders and their primarily impoverished clients.
WHERE/WHEN: Tonight only at the Little Roxie at 9:00.

WHY: When SF IndieFest's DocFest showcase moved its position on the annual festival calendar from October (as it was in 2012) to June 6-23 this year, it gave the programming team access to a greater number of documentaries that had played at, and even perhaps won awards at, the Sundance Film Festival (still one of the top showcases for brand-new documentaries, especially those made by U.S. filmmakers), but had not yet found a venue for a Frisco Bay theatrical premiere. Gideon's Army fits this profile perfectly; it won the "best editing" award from Sundance, but had DocFest not been around to screen it, it might have skipped local cinemas entirely as few venues seem likely to want to touch a documentary after it has its HBO television premiere, as this will in two weeks.

HOW: Digital presentation of a digital production.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Easy Virtue (1927)

WHO: Alfred Hitchcock directed this, and appears in one of the first of his famous cameos, "strolling past a tennis court" according to Patrick McGilligan.

WHAT: Based on a Noel Coward play, Easy Virtue was Hitchcock's fifth film completed as a director, and it may have been the last time he directed a film based on a work written by someone more famous than he was. The program book for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival presentation of the "Hitchcock 9"- the director's nine surviving silent films- says of Hitchcock's contribution: 
he excels himself in Easy Virtue. As he had in The Pleasure Garden and Champagne, he opens the film with an innovative trick shot. A giant mock-up with mirrors was used for the shot of the judge looking through his monocle, refelcting the actor standing behind the camera leading into a perfectly-matched close-up of the prosecuting counsel.
WHERE/WHEN: Today at 2:30 PM at the Castro Theater and Friday, August 30th at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.

WHY: Following up on yesterday's post discussing this weekend's Hitchcock 9 screening formats, I recognize there are divisions among silent movie fans about the best way to see a 1920s motion picture. Some prefer screenings that employ essentially the same technology cinemas used in the era these films were made: the 35mm projector and print, with the accompanying flicker and other characteristics of celluloid, including any dust, scratches or other marks on the frame left by previous runs through the projector. Others prefer the un-degradable, completely steady image projected by a high resolution video projector sourced from DCP (Digital Cinema Package) drives.

What practically every silent cinema aficionado agrees upon is that the best way to see these films is with a professional musical accompanist. Of the DCP projections I've seen at the Castro this weekend so far, I found Blackmail's and The Ring's to be a bit distractingly smooth for my tastes. But while watching The Manxman (probably an overall inferior film to either of the others) I was barely bothered by the digital quality while watching. Perhaps this is because more care was taken to create a film-like digital restoration and transfer. Or perhaps it's simply because I was too pulled into the story and its accompanying moods by the music to notice.

British pianist/flautist/accordionist Stephen Horne performed the music for The Manxman last night, with an assist from Diana Rowan on harp. He incorporated traditional Manx melodies beautifully into his own romantic playing style; at one point his arpeggiations brought to my mind Michael Nyman's celebrated score for Jane Campion's The Piano, but for most of the performance the music felt entirely connected to Hitchcock's film, and it alone. I expect I will have trouble being able to enjoy watching The Manxman with any other score, this one felt so close to definitive. I can't wait to hear his performances for The Farmer's Wife and The Pleasure Garden today, and his five accompaniments planned for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in July; Horne's scores are always among the sonic highlights of a SFSFF event in which they are featured.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra takes a fundamentally different approach to its scores, as we learned during the delightful digital slide presentation shown during the intermission of last night's performance of The Ring. Compared to Horne's approach, Mont Alto's is arguably more authentic to the historical record we have of what might have been performed by a chamber group at a silent movie house in the 1920s, and perhaps a bit more conducive to a more academic, less emotional, appreciation of a film's direction, editing mechanics, etc. (And perhaps the print quality as well.)  I really liked what they cooked up for Blackmail on Friday night, and was very impressed with their ability to shift between the classical tradition and jazz-style dance music for party sequences in The Ring.  They will perform for The Lodger this evening to close the weekend.

But I'm also excited to hear Judith Rosenberg perform for Easy Virtue today. Coming out of the world of dance accompaniment, she's a regular silent accompanist at the Pacific Film Archive (where in August she will perform for all nine of the Hitchcocks showing at the Castro this weekend) and the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum (where in two weeks she will perform for a set of European animated films as part of Frisco Bay's next big silent movie event, the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival.) But this weekend marks her debut at the Castro Theatre. Since I had to miss her performance to Champagne yesterday, I realize I've never heard her accompany a silent picture on a grand piano before! (Both the PFA and Niles are outfitted with uprights.) What's more I believe her appearance at the Hitchcock 9 marks the first time a SFSFF-presented event has featured a woman as solo accompanist for any of its films. (There are plenty of women who have performed at SFSFF as part of an ensemble, such as Britt Swenson and Dawn Kramer of Mont Alto, or who have joined with another performer like Rowen did with Horne last night.)

When the festival showtimes were first announced in March, Easy Virtue was to have been accompanied by an (at the time undetermined) organist. Within a few weeks, this plan had been changed because of the current physical condition of the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer, a problem which the theatre's regular organist David Hegarty is trying to raise funds to solve. While I love hearing the organ accompanying silent films, it's certainly true that not all films have an aesthetic quality that matches its timbral range; as I said to Anita Monga in our interview last week, A Cottage On Dartmoor would not work so well with organ accompaniment, while The Mark Of Zorro fits with the Wurlizter perfectly. Monga had this to say about the Silent Film Festival's use of the organ: 
We can't use organ at all this time because of vagaries with the people who own the organ and are going to be out of town. The organ needs major upgrading. We're not able to use it for the Hitchcocks. We have one show in the summer, with the proviso that if something happens we're able to switch to piano. 
When I followed up with a question about the likelihood of the Castro Wurlitzer being able to handle more SFSFF shows by July 2014, Monga replied:
We're just waiting to hear, but the Taylors are the family that own the organ, and they're retiring. It's really too risky for us to use it when they're not around. I've been at the Castro when the "oboe A" got stuck on, and no one can do anything. It's not like you flip a switch. You have to go up into the organ loft. That would be a disaster for us.
As much as I miss the organ, I'm very pleased that its disappearance from the Hitchcock 9 line-up made room for Judith Rosenberg to join the SFSFF rotation of musicians.

HOW: Easy Virtue screens from a 35mm print accompanied by Judith Rosenberg at both shows.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Downhill (1927)

WHO: Alfred Hitchcock directed this.

WHAT: Though Hitchcock disparaged its dialogue and the naïveté of one of its most memorable sequences, and though some modern critics find fault with its thematic misogyny, Downhill is a feast for admirers of the director's visual flourishes, second perhaps only to Blackmail among the silent Hitchcocks I've seen up to now in this regard. Most seem to lay the blame for the film's nearly-uniform negative portrayals of women at the feet of the film's star Ivor Novello, the semi-secretly gay movie idol who wrote the play Downhill was based on, and whose stardom had helped make The Lodger Hitchcock's first box office success. Only four films into his directing career, Hitchcock was still at the mercy of the projects he was assigned, but in the case of Downhill he certainly made the best of it, despite it really being Novello's show in the eyes of most of the public. Bill Krohn describes in his book Hitchcock At Work how at least one showing of the film exploited Novello's celebrity:
In one London theatre where the picture was playing, the lights and the screen went up half-way through the projection to reveal Ivor Novello on a stage dressed with props from the film, where he proceeded to give the public the next ten minutes of the film in sound - and 3-D!
I don't expect this kind of stunt to be tried at any modern screenings of Downhill, but if it were, I suppose the best person to hide behind the screen for such an unveiling would be Jeremy Northam, who played the long-deceased Novello in Robert Altman's 2001 film Gosford Park.

WHERE/WHEN: This afternoon at 4:00 at the Castro Theatre and August 24th at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.

WHY: If you skipped the San Francisco Silent Film Festival presentation of Blackmail last night, you missed one of Hitchcock's best, but also one of his historically most frequently revived early pictures. Today's slate includes four far--lesser-known titles, although the recent BFI restorations of the so-called "Hitchcock 9" should do a lot to rescue them from obscurity. For discussion of Champagne, The Ring, and The Manxman, as well as all the other Hitchcock titles screening at the Castro this weekend, there's no better place to turn than the link round-up compiled by David Hudson.

I single out Downhill because it's the only film playing the rest of this weekend that I've seen on 35mm before (at a slower frame rate at the PFA) and because it's the sole film showing on 35mm film in today's set. The other three, along with last night's Blackmail and tomorrow's The Farmer's Wife, are being distributed only digitally, Made at British International Pictures rather than at the Gainsborough studio, these slightly-later features now are distributed world wide by Studio Canal, and are being made available in the US by Rialto Pictures only on DCP.

The four surviving Gainsborough pictures (The Pleasure Garden, The Lodger, Downhill, and Easy Virtue), on the other hand, have been made available in 35mm prints through the BFI, and will be shown this way at both the Castro this weekend and at the PFA in August. Earlier this week SFSFF Artistic Director Anita Monga told me some fascinating information about the decision to show these films on film rather than DCP:
We were going to present on DCP, and really it was the president of our board who said, "Oh, you have to show 35mm". It's a huge expense to bring 100 pounds of film over. It also requires us to show at 20 frames per second. The Castro no longer has a 3-blade shutter, so 20 frames can be flickery. In our summer festival we are going to install [a 3-blade shutter]; it's like a thousand dollars to install the 3 blade shutter and uninstall it- and we have to increase the lumens on screen. 
The reason the Castro took out their 3-blade shutter, which makes for projection of slower films, is because they had to put so many lumens on screen to get over the 3-blade shutter's leak of light. You have to get so many lumens on the screen to get a good picture, that they were burning out their reflector. So for them, economically, it didn't make sense to have the 3-blade shutter. Because we're showing several films that are screening at lower than 20 frames per, it's a necessity, or else you're seeing an extreme flicker.
Monga told me there will be some DCP at the summer festival as well (expect it for Safety Last!, the comedy shorts program and The Weavers, and don't expect to ever see that latter in a cinema any other way, as no prints exist) but assured me that The First Born, which was co-written by Hitchcock's wife and creative partner Alma Reville, will screen from a 35mm print.

HOW: As noted above, both screenings are planned to employ 35mm prints, with live piano accompaniment. Today it's Stephen Horne providing the music, and in August it will be Judith Rosenberg.