Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Two Eyes: Lawrence Chadbourne

In the San Francisco Bay Area, moviegoing is not just for the newest releases. In 2013 there were more theatrical opportunities to see films spanning the history of cinema than any one person could take advantage of. Therefore, I've asked a sampling of local moviegoers to select a few favorites seen in cinemas last year. An index of participants is found here.  

The following list comes from Lawrence Chadbourne, a film buff and video collector whom you can follow on twitter.

5 viewings of older movies in 2013 had special impact for me. The first was in April with 1963's El Verdugo (Not On Your Life) part of a  Luis García Berlanga series at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, curated by Steve Seid. I had actually seen it twice before, the last time singling out  Jose Isbert as the elderly executioner who coaxes his son in law to take over a  dreadful job and tries to mentor him. This black comedy on capital  punishment and other aspects of 1960s Spanish society, still under the repressive regime of Francisco Franco, does not seem to survive in its original 110 minute version, due to censorship, but what exists is scintillating. Why did this revival have such a strong effect this time? First, I was able to see it as part of an overall oeuvre. In fact the opportunity to fill in gaps in my filmography of this major auteur was the most interesting cinematic event this year at least for me, an aging and somewhat jaded moviegoer. Second, the archival print brought from Spain revealed as not so much before the  incredible sharpness and depth of field of ace Italian lenser Tonino Delli Colli's camerawork (it was a co-production.) This style, which I much favor over a currently increasing one where backgrounds are blurred and the viewer is given less freedom to explore the information in an image, does not call attention to itself but allows Berlanga to provide a realistic, convincing setting for his social commentary, I noticed he used it in other works in the cycle.

The second was in August when the Castro Theatre's Keith Arnold gave us a two day booking of the 1971 Max Et Les Ferrailleurs (Max And The Junkmen.) Director Claude Sautet did a number of popular star entries later in his career that seemed at the time I saw them lightweight and blandly bourgeois, but he has gotten renewed attention in recent years for his earlier crime films, due to the growing interest in all things "noir." The Rialto outfit is especially to be commended for getting several of these rereleased. In the case of "Max" the movie had actually slipped through the cracks of distribution patterns at the time, so last year it had its first ever New York City showing, and my hope for it to come to the Bay Area was fulfilled. What was so special about this particular Sautet was  Romy Schneider, who through her acting, the way she is shot (by cinematographer Rene Mathelin) and the way she is attired, brings a striking presence to her somewhat stereotypical role as the loose woman involved with gangsters. If there is indeed such a thing as Laura Mulvey's "male gaze," where some of us see movies partly to witness beautiful women on the big screen, this is evidence for it.

Soon after in August the Rafael Film Center's Richard Peterson gave us several opportunities to see Joe Dante's 2009 The Hole in 3D. This movie got a limited release to begin with, especially in that format, and this could actually have been its local premiere. That's what happens sometimes when you are a maverick like Dante, The story of two boys who find an underground portal that opens up a strange new world, gave opportunities for an interesting use of screen space and it was fun to see, in smaller roles, American International veteran Dick Miller and this year's rediscovery among the mainstream critics, Bruce Dern.

My list is rounded out by two movies that with our host's forbearance fall outside the spectrum of local repertory, One wasn't even seen on a screen. The first was from a trip to Los Angeles, my first use of the enterprising MegaBus, to catch two rare Clara Bow talkies that had been unavailable for about 80 years since they opened These were in March at UCLA's Billy Wilder Theatre, Bow was still big box office when Her Wedding Night (1930) and Kick In (1931) appeared but she was  struggling with her transition to sound and neither was popular After limited plays the two disappeared into the vaults of Paramount, the studio where both were made and to which she had a contract, and later when the company sold its pre-1950s package to Universal for TV showings, neither was found worth the trouble of making available. Only when Bow biographer David Stenn convinced Universal to clear the underlying literary and remake rights and print new theatrical 35mm copies did the two resurface, Because the archive material Universal had to work with was relatively pristine, the results are two especially clean examples of what an early 1930s Hollywood film looked like in its prime. Kick In, the one I'd like to emphasize, was actually cited by New York City's Film Forum programmer Bruce Goldstein, on the occasion of its unveiling there, as the most beautiful copy of a pre-code he'd ever seen The shadowy photography is by the great Victor Milner. Because of its pre-noir qualities (including a character who is a drug addict and references to "snowbirds":- not meaning blue haired ladies from Canada who migrate South) I have recommended it for eventual inclusion in Eddie Muller's San Francisco edition of Noir City, though for this year's festival Eddie had other plans.

Last, but not least, was a home viewing on DVD of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's elusive Frauen In New York (1977) his version of George Cukor's The Women. Or rather of Clare Boothe Luce's' original play, as translated into German, which had too many references to abortion, homosexuality, and impotence among other things to emerge unscathed at MGM under the Code. I rented the disc from my invaluable Inner Sunset Le Video, during the months that other, younger buffs were discovering some of the more well known Fassbinders in the latest touring season at the Roxie, the PFA, and Yerba Buena. While I was happy the work of this great director (my favorite, actually, of all those who emerged after World War II) was getting attention again, I was disappointed that there were none of the missing titles that I had not yet gotten to see, since I first was introduced to him in 1974. Frauen made it into New York City's 1997 Fassbinder retro, but I don't know if it's ever played the Bay Area, and as with the Bows I wasn't going to wait around. As it was shot (for TV) in 16mm it will benefit from a future presentation on a screen, since the colors, lighting and art design are all rich and dazzling. Without saying too much, the film is rigorously constructed as a set of 12 long takes, in which women gathered in changing groups reposition themselves as they move across the layered screen space, or are repositioned by the moving camera. In between these scenes as "pillow shots" there are static images of well known Edward Hopper canvases, showing us lonely single women.In the acted scenes Fassbinder sometimes emphasizes objects that block some of the characters, or figures who stand by mutely and witness the conversation: the androgynous looking child of one of the women, or a cleaning lady who keeps washing a glass window in the Reno hotel. Though from what I've said one can see this is a very cinematic work, it is also one that foregrounds the theatricality of its text, even the slightly shrill declamation of some of the lines, and does such things (more common on the stage) as having actresses play several roles within the same movie. Since Fassbinder's genius first developed in the theater, and since this was the last play he directed live, Frauen is a moving record of his particular talent. I hope others will soon be able to share my enthusiasm for this masterpiece.

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