Friday, May 30, 2014

Cosmic Voyage (1936)

image courtesy San Francisco Silent Film Festival
WHO: Stars Sergei Komarov, the Soviet-era actor who also performed in previous San Francisco Silent Film Festival selections By the Law, Chess Fever and The House on Trubnaya Square, and directed A Kiss From Mary Pickford. He's also in tomorrow night's The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks.

WHAT: In the words of Michael Atkinson, who wrote the essay on this film found in the glossy, 112-page program book provided free to every attendee of this year's Silent Film Festival, Cosmic Voyage is "a genuinely obscure silent-Soviet artifact that appears to not have been mentioned in any film history book known to the English-speaking world. This is hardly just an old silent-- it's a dream retrieved from the long-lost consciousness as well as an important progenitor of many of science fiction film's integral genre tropes."

WHERE/WHEN: Screens at 10PM tonight at the Castro Theatre.

WHY: Cosmic Voyage will be introduced by the one and only Craig Baldwin, who will share a little of his Other Cinema energy with a Castro Theatre audience as the SF Silent Film Festival's annual "filmmaker's pick". This program launched officially in 2008 when Guy Maddin gave a stirring defense of melodrama while introducing a screening of an imported French-intertitled print Tod Browning's The Unknown, for which he recited the English-language title cards. Since then, luminaries like Terry Zwigoff, Alexander Payne and Phillip Kaufman have provided introductions to selections from the festival programs. Last year the "filmmaker's pick" appeared to go on hiatus, although one might consider animator John Canemaker's presentation on pioneer Winsor McCay an unofficial iteration.

It's a wonderful tradition in my opinion, a perfect compliment to the many scholars and archivists who are brought in to introduce films at the festival each year. Though I wasn't able to fit her answer into my Keyframe preview on the festival, I was interested to hear what artistic director Anita Monga said about   Baldwin and the "filmmaker's pick" program when I spoke with her last week:
We don't just ask everyone. We're looking at their work and thinking, "how has early cinema influenced later cinema?" And there's something about Craig's work and that collage sense that has a direct correlation with the Soviet period. People often say "I'm not an expert on the silent film." But that's not why we're asking. We're trying to make the thread from the earliest cinema to today. In all kinds of ways, narrative filmmakers and underground filmmakers and experimental filmmakers had roots in the moving image of the silent era.
I also had the honor of being asked to interview Baldwin for the latest issue of a new Bay Area film site Eat Drink Films, just published earlier today. Please check out the interview and the other articles on the site including another Silent Film Festival-related piece on food in slapstick comedy, by Paul F. Etcheverry.

HOW: DCP with musical accompaniment by the Silent Movie Music Company (a.k.a. Günther Buchwald and Frank Backius). Frank Buxton will be on hand to read aloud an English translation of the Russian intertitles.

As for the digital nature of tonight's screening, I've already noted that there are more digital screenings than ever this year. Though I feel it's also worth noting there are also more film programs being screened on film this year than in any SFSFF year prior to Anita Monga's involvement in the festival. When I asked Monga about digital, she made some very interesting points:
At the beginning of DCP people made mistakes in the quality. They cleaned up too much. They made the image very flat. I am not one of the people who thinks that format is the paramount thing about these films. We're making these titles accessible in the best possible way. If I were going to be doctrinaire I would say I never want to see anything from the silent era on anything other than nitrate because there is a really qualitative difference between that and acetate. I'd like to continue doing other programs that address this."

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)

screen capture from DVD release of Hugo (2011)
WHO: Rudolph Valentino became a star from his role in this film.

WHAT: One of the most widely-seen films of the silent era, it reportedly took in $4 million in box office grosses, around the same amount as Chaplin's The Gold Rush did a few years later. But it is far less-frequently revived today. I missed its last Frisco Bay screening ten years ago because I was foolish enough to let my family schedule a reunion the same weekend as the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I'm thrilled to get a second chance to see it tonight, as it opens the 19th edition of that festival, the only reprised feature in the weekend program.

WHERE/WHEN: 7PM tonight only at the Castro Theatre.

WHY: I was reminded by Mick LaSalle's SFSFF preview that Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was cited by festival founder Melissa Chittick as the film that inspired her to create a silent film festival, back when she saw it presented at the 1993 San Francisco International Film Festival with Dennis James accompanying on organ. It only took about a year for the festival to hold its first event in 1994, an early history of the festival that I describe in my own festival preview, just published today at Fandor's Keyframe blog. There's been a sea of advance coverage for the festival, including previews by Thomas GladyszDennis Harvey, and Michael Hawley. I'm especially impressed by Carl Martin's thorough recounting of the provenance of all the 35mm prints for features being shown at the festival. I interviewed Anita Monga, who has now been the festival's artistic director for five years, for my own article. I hope you enjoy reading it, and seeing the films this weekend at the Castro.

HOW: 35mm print from Kevin Brownow's Photoplay Productions in England, with live accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. As Monga told me in our interview, "Patrick Stanbury, Kevin’s partner at Photoplay, will be in the projection booth, changing the speeds as the film goes. It’s 132 minutes but it is not all the same speed."

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Unknown (1927)

 A scene from Tod Browning's THE UNKNOWN, which will screen with live musical accompaniment by Stephin Merritt at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 24 - May 8. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society.
WHO: Tod Browning directed, and Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford star in this film.

WHAT: Eventually every film lover who digs deep enough into the most remarkable and unusual treasures of film history comes across The Unknown, a circus-set tale of obsession, blackmail, and revenge. It's best if he or she knows as little as possible about the plot specifics before watching it for the first time however. But I don't think it's a spoiler, or a risk of overselling it, to say that it contains Lon Chaney's most remarkable physical and emotional performance, and that I consider it one of the great cinematic works of the late 1920s, too-often unfairly relegated to sideshow status to the kinds of films that were considered for Academy Awards and/or received frequent citations in film history books. The Unknown barely even rated a mention in the 1957 Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces, in part because that film was made at Universal, which saw Chaney's Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame as far overshadowing the films he made with Tod Browning and others at MGM, and in part I suspect because its subject matter was still considered too hot to handle even in the waning years of the Motion Picture Production Code. That's all fine, as it helps The Unknown feel less like an old "warhorse" and more like a gem waiting to be discovered, even today.

If you do want to read more about the film, Sean McCourt wrote an article for this very blog about the last time it screened in the Bay Area almost six years ago.

WHERE/WHEN: 8PM tonight only at the Castro Theatre, presented by the San Francisco International Film Festival.

WHY: I'm not going to earn any "cool points" from certain purists by admitting this, but I've attended just about every live music/silent film event the San Francisco Film Society has put on in the past fourteen years, and I regret attending none of them. Last year I was quoted in an article discussing the history of these screenings, and I'm afraid I came off as a little more curmudgeonly than I really feel. It's true that some of these events (Mountain Goats and Sir Arne's Treasure; Black Francis's The Golem) are really just music concerts with a 35mm print running overhead a band playing the kinds of songs it usually does, with little attempt to connect musical and film content beyond providing inspiration for the setlist. But I can certainly enjoy that kind of experience even if I don't necessarily consider what's happening "accompaniment" or a "score". Increasingly I'm just thankful to get to see silent films in 35mm, no matter what the sound in the venue is like.

These are unique events in that you really don't know what you're going to get when you walk into them. I had no idea what to expect last Tuesday when I went to see Thao Nguyen and her band the Get Down Stay Down, one of the few instances in which the SFIFF has presented one of these events with a band I was not already something of a fan of. I sat next to my friend Dakin Hardwick, who was covering the event for the Spinning Platters website, and has written an excellent summary of the event from the perspective of a Thao fan who'd never seen a Charlie Chaplin film before. A few seats away on my other side was silent film aficionado Lincoln Specter, a film-blogging colleague whose account I agree with almost completely, although I'd note that the low-budget classic The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra is as much influenced by Soviet film trends as German ones. I found the evening tremendously entertaining, and it was great to see The Pawnshop and several short newsreels from the National Film Preservation Foundation's haul of treasures recently repatriated from New Zealand (as well as 9413), in 35mm prints. 

Neither Dakin nor Lincoln really commented on the thematic unity of all the mixed-and-matched films and videos from various moviemaking eras, which only truly became apparent in the final of three short videos directed by Lauren Tabak and starring Nguyen, which made joking reference  to one of the Hearst Movietone clips screened earlier in the program. Nguyen is clearly aware of the historical demands of show business, in which women have found themselves offered as a commodity for audience consumption; performing on a stage built for nubile dancers to provide pre-film spectacle back in 1922 was a way to reclaim female power out of such a situation.

What Nguyen and company did was, again, not what I'd call a "score" for any of the films shown, but it was totally of a piece, and worked well as an evening's entertainment. Arguably better than some prior attempts by SFIFF-selected bands to compose or adapt music for a true film accompaniment. I thought last year's Waxworks score by Mike Patton, Matthias Bossi, Scott Amerndola and William Winant was possibly the most successfully realized of these attempts, but I know there are those who disagree with me even placing it in this category. Others, like Jonathan Richman's The Phantom Carriage and Stephin Merritt's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea were, for me, largely admirable attempts that suffered a few too serious problems to truly succeed. As the latter ended, I tweeted that I "overall enjoyed the audaciousness of it all. Applied to an inarguable non-masterpiece, it doesn't fell like a wasted opportunity." I hope that Merritt learned a few lessons from that night, since he's being brought back tonight to provide the music for The Unknown, and is expected to tackle a third silent sometime down the road.

Anyway, if it doesn't work out, the professional silent film accompanists will arrive in full force (minus any organists, sadly) for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival which comes sooner than usual this year. It runs May 29 through June 1, in a cost-cutting attempt to take advantage of cheaper air and hotel rates for festival guests than traditionally found in July. There's only three feature films in this year's program I've seen in full before, the lowest such tally in many a year. All three are well worth watching, even if they're not their director's respective masterpieces: Carl Dreyer's The Parson's Widow, Yasujiro Ozu's Dragnet Girl and Buster Keaton's The Navigator. Of the others, I've long been wanting to see 35mm prints of Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Underground, and The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, and am crossing my fingers these titles screen that way. Most of the others I've never or barely heard of at all, and am excited just to experience however I can, but especially on the Castro screen with top-class accompaniment.

If you can't wait that long, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum hosts silent 16mm screenings with live musicians every Saturday and have just announced their line-ups for May and June, including their weekend-long Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival which includes showings of proven classic titles like The Big Parade, Gertie the Dinosaur and The Circus as well as many lesser-known films.

HOW: The Unknown will screen in a rare 35mm print, with live accompaniment by Stephin Merritt. It will be preceded by a Guy Maddin short film Sissy Boy Slap Party, the soundtrack for which Merritt and accordionist Daniel Handler hope to whip the audience into a frenzy of participation.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Day 13 hosts the last scheduled screening of Tangerines, a Georgian (as in former Soviet Republic of) film that I've heard nothing but praise about from festgoers who've had a chance to see it already. Among other options there's also Charlie McDowell's The One I Love, one of three programs happening over the next couple days that were added to the festival schedule after the program books went to press, as noted on Gary Meyer's new EatDrinkFilms website.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: The New Parkway in Oakland holds a special screening of a 2008 documentary called Children of the Amazon at 7:00 with the director present tonight.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Cosmic Flower Unfolding (2013)

A scene from Benjamin Ridgeway's COSMIC FLOWER UNFOLDING, playing at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 24 - May 8, 2014Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
WHO: Benjamin Ridgeway created this work.

WHAT: There's long been a connection between San Francisco's experimental film scene and the concentration of interest in non-traditional and/or non-Western spirituality. In particular, Asian mystical and religious ideas have informed the work particularly of the Bay Area's legendary experimental animators, such as Harry Smith, Jordan Belson and Lawrence Jordan. Cosmic Flower Unfolding proves the durability of this confluence into the digital animation era. Ridgeway, a local university professor and video game animator, describes in a brief interview on the San Francisco International Film Festival's blog that he first visualized this very short (2-minute) work while meditating, and uses the Sanskrit term "mandala" to describe some of the neon forms he arranges and has pulsate throughout the piece, until they make the form of sage-like face. Ridgeway was influenced by the illustrations of nineteenth-century biologist Ernst Haeckel, but I was also reminded of snowflake geometries. Perhaps there's a mystic out there who'd argue that flowers, undersea creatures, ice crystals, and constellations of electronic data all are essentially the same thing in the scheme of things.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens on a program starting 9PM tonight only at the Kabuki, presented by the San Francisco International Film Festival.

WHY: If you have trouble accepting animation as anything other than cartoons for kids (by which I could mean either children or stoned college students) then you may have trouble with the SFIFF's Shorts 3 program, but if you are open to the breadth of how the medium can be applied in intellectually and sensorially stimulating ways, you'll likely find it to be a very worthwhile program. Ranging from exercises in eye-popping, near-complete abstraction such as Cosmic Flower Unfolding and two pieces by Max Hattler, to Subconscious Password, a piece of semi-autobiographical satire from Canada's Chris Landreth (who made the Academy Award-winning Ryan), this set of 11 shorts proves there are still a heck of a lot of ways to get your mind blown without taking drugs. 

Frequent SFIFF contributors Bill Plympton and Kelly Sears take their respective animating styles into extreme territories at polar opposite ends of the "cartoony or not" spectrum and both far, far from Pixar and its middle-of-the-road imitators. I was delighted to recognize Guilherme Marcondes's The Master's Voice: Caveirao as a worthy follow-up to the Brazilian-born animator's prior mini-masterwork Tyger almost immediately; it carries the same sense of menace and whimsy, and some similar visual elements even if it was created using wholly different techniques and is in a way far more ambitious. Another stunner is Gloria Victoria, by a Canadian filmmaker named Theodore Ushev that I was unfamiliar with but will be keeping an eye out for from now own; his striking Constructivist-influenced design style feels very attuned to his anti-war themes and his motion marches perfectly to the Shostakovich soundtrack he selected. But I picked Ridgeway's film to highlight in particular because he's expected to attend the screening tonight.

HOW: All the Shorts 3 selections will screen digitally.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Day 12 of the festival also includes the final screening of Manakamana- on the Kabuki's biggest screen!! - and of Kazakh film Harmony Lessons. It also features the first showing of Lukas Moodysson's We Are The Best!

NON-SFIFF OPTION: It's discount night at the Roxie Cinema so if you still haven't caught Jonathan Glazer's Under The Skin on a big screen yet, tonight's your chance to do so for half the price of a regular SFIFF ticket.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Of Horses Of Men (2013)

A scene from Benedikt Erlingsson's OF HORSES AND MEN, playing at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 24- May 8, 2014. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
WHO: This is the first feature film written and directed by Icelandic theatre director Benedikt Erlingsson, best known in the film world for his acting role in Lars Von Trier's The Boss of It All

WHAT: "You going to let me catch you?" asks Kolbeinn, the dapper Alpha male of a small, isolated community of ranchers and tour guides obsessed with all things equine by tradition if no longer exactly by necessity. His question is to his pride and joy, a white mare he saddles up for a brisk gallop across the landscape to pay a call on a fellow horse-owner and her tri-generational but patriarch-less family. Indeed, Kolbeinn (played by internationally-experienced actor Ingvar E. Sigurðsson). His ride is a show for the audience, for himself, and for the entire plateau, as he is observed (often through telescopic lenses) by just about everyone across the plateau. The expanse between dwellings doesn't prevent a close-knit community from being a bunch of nosy neighbors, intensely curious about the potential blood-line mixing of any of the horses or humans in their midst.

This scene sets up an easy laugh that I'm not sure why I'm hesitant in giving away since it's actually telegraphed through very careful editing for minutes before. But perhaps the anticipation only increases the payoff. The audience I saw this scene with yesterday let out little chuckles and other utterances during the foreshadowing moments, and then erupted into a full-scale group belly-laugh once it arrived.

The scene introduces us to glimpses of all the key characters we'll be following through various vignettes throughout the rest of Of Horses and Men; the organizers of group riding and horse-culture immersion tours, an alcoholic husband; an attractive young equestrienne, a Spanish traveler, etc. Here they're briefly shown as observers of Kolbeinn's embarrassing moment, but soon enough they'll have their own adventures to make. Many of them result in some kind of tragedy. All of them revolve around horses.

There's no question that Erlingsson and his crew photograph these beasts with awe and care, although the grim fates that befall some of them and their riders counterbalance the film's leanings into Tourist-Authority-sanctioned territory. As such, the film fulfills the long-nurtured love affair between the motion picture camera and the horse, going back as far as Eadweard Muybridge and continuing through just about every Western and large-scale historical epic made during Yakima Canutt's lifetime. But I must admit I found the film's thematic paralleling of human and animal relationships to be frequently superficial, uninspired, and unworthy of the craft put into staging and filming. Perhaps I'm just slightly allergic to the overlapping vignette framework being employed here, for the same reasons that Magnolia is my least favorite Paul Thomas Anderson film and Crash my least favorite Best Picture winner in recent memory. Though Of Horses And Men is not as facile as a Paul Haggis film, the fact that I'm thinking of one at all makes me hesitant to enthusiastically recommend it to serious cinephiles. Trot with caution.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 8:45 tonight and 6:00 Monday at the Kabuki, presented by the San Francisco International Film Festival.

WHY: This is the only one of the films competing for SFIFF's New Directors Prize (only first- and second-time feature filmmakers are eligible) that I've seen so far, unfortunately. Luckily, all but one of the others (The Blue Wave) are still playing during the final several days of the festival. Here is the list of the competitors for the $10,000 cash award that last year went to the Turkish film Present Tense.


OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Day 10 features the final festival screenings of Lav Diaz's Norte, the End of History and Hong Sangsoo's Our Sunhi. I'd have featured the latter for today's post had my friend Adam Hartzell not already written quite a bit about it for this blog.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: The Yerba Buena Center For the Arts began the biggest tribute to Studio Ghibli ever presented in the Bay Area on Thursday, and tonight's double-bill of Nausicaa And The Valley of the Wind and Whisper of the Heart gives a great sense of the broadness of the kind of work being done at that Japanese animation stronghold over the years.

Friday, May 2, 2014

All That Jazz (1979)

A scene from Bob Fosse's ALL THAT JAZZ, playing at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 24- May 8, 2014. 
WHO: Bob Fosse wrote and directed this.

WHAT: A 1979 film by a director who'd already proved himself one of the great auteurs of the 1970s with films released in 1972 and 1974 (one of which earned him the Best Director Academy Award), but who found his film, probably his most ambitious to date, defeated by Robert Benton and Kramer Vs. Kramer at the Oscars that year. At least he had the consolation of a shared Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for this magnificent work.

That last paragraph could describe Francis Ford Coppola and Apocalypse Now but it just as easily describes Fosse and All That Jazz, which for me is easily his cinematic masterpiece. Too-often ignored in accountings of the great films of the 1970s, this highly-personal work, something of a dance-film extension of the themes of Fellini's 8 1/2, is one of the great films about artistic creation in the face of physical and creative roadblocks. It makes a particularly good comparison piece for those of us who saw Abuse of Weakness last night, but it's absolutely worth seeing on the big screen regardless. As Melissa Anderson wrote earlier this year in Artforum:
This phenomenal 1979 film, a work of “depressive exhilaration,” in the astute words of Sam Wasson, author of the excellent, recently published biography Fosse, was the director’s third (and final) Hollywood musical, following Sweet Charity (1969), an adaptation of Fosse’s 1966 stage production of the same name, and Cabaret (1972). All three movies are obsidian prisms reflecting the darker, seamier aspects of show business, informed by the desperate ambience that Fosse observed first-hand as a teenage dancer in the burlesque halls of his native Chicago. Those formative, often scarring years as an entertainer are re-presented in All That Jazz, in which Fosse’s self-regard is no match for his self-excoriation.
WHERE/WHEN: Tonight only at the Pacific Film Archive, at 8:30 PM, presented by the San Francisco International Film Festival.

WHY: Although the San Francisco International Film Festival has made many changes in the 10 years I've been attending as press, the most talked-about changes (the five executive directors the festival has had during that time, most notably) don't appear (to me) to provide as much substantial transformation of the festival's character, in terms of the amount of quality works that an above-averagely-interested attendee could see every year. The more notable transformation, in my outlook, is the shift in dominant projection format over the years, to the point where I was earlier this week able to round-up all of this year's expected 35mm, 16mm and super-8 work in a single paragraph. Seeing Paul Clipson's incredible Bright Mirror shown from a Super-8 projector set up in the middle of the Kabuki's House 3, reminded me of how the festival a decade ago would set up a special projector in the middle of the room to show video works, as film was the Kabuki's standard format and the widespread dominance of DCPs (Digital Cinema Packages) was only a futuristic imagining.

I have no problem watching DCPs of new films at SFIFF, especially those shot on video cameras in the first place (increasingly more of them), and my Senses of Cinema article on the 2005 festival used the role of digital production and distribution in fulfilling a film festival's mandate as a frame. If I were to write an update today, I'd stress how we're now at the point in the evolution of digital filming and presentation technology where a filmmaker insisting on shooting or projecting on film is now making a deliberate choice to greatly limit his or her options for processing, exhibition, and so on throughout the chain of getting images in front of audience eyes. Even films created in the age of celluloid, by makers who expected the subtleties of their manipulation of chemistry to impress their vision onto screens, are steadily being transformed (though the industry buzzwords are the paradoxical "digitally restored") into collections of electronic signals. Generally, the more high-profile the revival, the more likely it is to be digital-only and to replace all legitimate film-on-film distribution of a given title. The 2014 Cannes Classics line-up, for instance, will be the first-ever in that sidebar to present only DCPs and no 35mm prints.

Though I'm increasingly finding myself able to appreciate a DCP screening of classic films, I'm far less apt to go out of my way to see one than a 35mm print. Knowing that the latter is becoming scarcer and scarcer only ups the ante on the sense of "unique event" that running a physical print through a projector really was all along, no matter how ubiquitous it seemed. Scarcity of digital screenings of any given title feels far more artificial; there's far less of a physical barrier to a cinema projecting a digital copy of a classic than there is to screening one of a finite number of prints. Still, sometimes I want to see a movie on a cinema screen no matter how it's presented. It never really bothered me that prior SFIFFs included video-projected showings of Latin American rarities like Los Inundados and We Are The Music; how else was I going to see these great works otherwise? Short of going back in time to 2009 (the last time All That Jazz showed in 35mm in the Bay Area, as far as I can recall), tonight's showing is as good as we're likely to get.

HOW: All the usual sources have said that All That Jazz screens from a DCP. But the Film Foundation's own website lists it as a 35mm print. This discrepancy raises an eyebrow only because last year the Film Foundation shipped both a DCP and a 35mm print of The Mattei Affair to the festival, which was lucky because the DCP proved to be technically troublesome at the PFA. Assuming the festival is similarly prepared this year, might it be worth crossing fingers for a snafu?

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: SFIFF's Day 9 features another revived title: Lino Brocka's Manila In The Claws of Light. The final screening of the gripping marital-conflict drama If You Don't, I Will starring Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos and the sole festival screening of Boyhood with director Richard Linklater in person also happen today, although if you don't have a ticket already you'll need to wait in the Rush Line for these latter two showings.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: A double-bill of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and Sorry, Wrong Number defies the trend of DCPs superceding 35mm prints forever, as the latter fairly recently screened at the PFA as a DCP, but will show in 35mm, like the rest of the Stanford's current Barbara Stanwyck series. It runs through Sunday.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Abuse Of Weakness (2013)

A scene from Catherine Breillat's ABUSE OF WEAKNESS, playing at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 24 - May 8, 2014. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
WHO: Catherine Breillat wrote and directed this.

WHAT: I have not yet seen Abuse of Weakness but I'm excited for the chance to follow a filmmaker who I greatly associate with the SFIFF over the years. In 2002 the festival showed her underrated Brief Crossing, and two years later she attended in person for a showing of Sex Is Comedy, which was a semi-autobiographical account of the making of her notorious Fat Girl. Shortly after that visit to San Francisco Breillat suffered a series of strokes which she recovered from well enough to appear at the Castro for the 2008 festival opening night selection The Last Mistress. These were followed by festival selections Bluebeard and The Sleeping Beauty in 2009 and 2011 respectively, and now after three films set in the far-off past, she returns to the very recent past. Abuse of Weakness is said to be based on Breillat's own autobiography since Sex is Comedy, starring Isabelle Huppert as a stand-in for herself. For reviews I direct you once again to Critics Round Up.

WHERE/WHEN: Tonight only at 9PM at the Kabuki, presented by the San Francisco International Film Festival.

WHY: I understand Abuse of Weakness screens in the Kabuki's House 1, by far the largest screen the festival uses other than the Castro's, and worth going out of one's way to see films in. It's where I saw Brief Crossing and Sex is Comedy, and can't help but wonder if that's part of why I preferred those to Bluebeard, which unfolded in a more intimate space. Breillat's films do not eschew spectacular dimensions, and it seems unlikely that, despite theatrical distribution from Strand Releasing expected for Abuse of Weakness, this will be the largest theatre Frisco Bay movie lovers will ever be able to see it in. Note that I've learned Manakanama will screen in House 1 for its final festival screening this Monday afternoon. Wish I could go to that!

I'm impressed that the SFIFF picked a Breillat film to run in its sole screening on the festival's "Awards Night" tonight, when deep-pocketed donors spring for a chance to hobnob with festival awardees like Richard Linklater, Stephen Gaghan, Jeremy Irons and John Lasseter. In past years the "middle Thursday" programming has often seemed a bit calmer than most nights, with lots of second screenings of films already premiered. Does having the only festival showing of a major auteur work on the same night as this party signal something about a disconnect between the financial engine of the festival and the desires of local rank-and-cinephiles?


OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Day 8 of SFIFF gives festgoers final chances at seeing the Viennese "Frederick Wiseman lite" documentary The Great Museum, Nobuhiro Yamashita's low-key twenty-something portrait Tamako In Moratorium, and the "director's cut" of Patrice Chereau's Queen Margot.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: The Castro Theatre just revealed its full May calendar, which starts off tonight with a bang: 35mm prints of the late Vera Chytilová's Daisies and of Allan Moyle's rare gem Times Square.