Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Rufino Tamayo: the Sources of His Art (1973)

Image from brief youtube excerpt from the film.
WHO: Los Angeles filmmaker Gary Conklin directed this 28-minute documentary.

WHAT: I wrote this brief blurb on this film for the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) website:
An investigation of one of Mexico's most intriguing painters, known especially for his use of color (thankfully SFPL's print has retained all of its lovely hues.) Born in Oaxaca and proud of his Zapotec Indian heritage, Tamayo was one of the twentieth century's most prominent artists influenced both by pre-Columbian art and by European modernists such as Picasso. These inspirations, as well as the visual characteristics of Mexico itself, are presented in conjunction with interviews with Tamayo. In addition, Hollywood director John Huston (the Treasure of Sierra Madre, Night of the Iguana) speaks a narration written by Nobel laureate Octavio Paz; director Gary Conklin would later return the favor by documenting the filming of Huston's final Mexico-set feature, Under the Volcano. Conklin has also made film portraits of Gore Vidal, Paul Bowles, and Ed Ruscha.
WHERE/WHEN: Screens 6:30 PM tonight only at the SFPL Noe Valley branch's meeting room.

WHY: I sense that Frisco Bay is feeling a smaller presence of 35mm this September than in any month since the nineteenth century. With the PFA closed as it prepares its move down the hill into downtown Berkeley, with the Stanford shuttered until October for remodeling, and with the Alamo Drafthouse's New Mission location still without a publicly-announced grand opening date, it feels like a moment of uncertainty and waiting. Meanwhile Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is presenting a Neil Young screening series (to be followed by an Architecture & Design doc series) with only one 35mm print (his blown-up-from Super-8 Greendale), and the format is running a distant third (with 13 shows) even at the Castro behind digital shows (well over 20) and 70mm screenings (10 Labor Day weekend Vertigo shows plus 5 of Lawrence of Arabia this weekend = 15). The 4-Star Theatre, the last San Francisco cinema still regularly showing new releases in 35mm, has the digitally-shot Straight Outta Compton, and though the South Bay's BlueLight Cinema is showing 35mm prints of 50% of its current offerings (including four shot-on-video action films and one shot-on-35mm drama by a guy whose films I currently refuse to see), I imagine that percentage will drop in the near future, at least if its kickstarter to raise funds for better digital projectors is successful. Finally, the Paramount in Oakland will be showing a 35mm print of the original Mad Max on Friday, although I've been told to expect the American-dubbed version.

When I can rattle off a month's worth of 35mm showings in the region in a single paragraph, it's pretty clear I'm talking about a waning format, perhaps an "inevitable" transition as a panel at the newly-announced Mill Valley Film Festival seems set to prove. But even if 35mm were to die tomorrow, it wouldn't mean the end of projected reels as long as there were 16mm-centric venues like Oddball Films and the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum and the Exploratorium (which is showcasing a set of brand new 16mm preservations this Thursday) around and thriving. Artists' Television Access (A.T.A.) is another venue which values 16mm projection and which is busier than usual this September; Craig Baldwin traditionally involves 16mm in every one of his weekly Other Cinema programs, and my girlfriend Kerry Laitala will be presenting 3 different multi-projector performances this Friday at her show with Voicehandler at the Valencia Street venue. I highly recommend attending, especially if you missed one or both of their shows at Oddball and Shapeshifters Cinema this past July.

in 2015 I've become involved with a group of A.T.A. volunteers who are spending evenings going through the San Francisco Public Library's collection of 16mm prints, most of them untouched in 20 years or more. The library has a collection of hundreds of films intended for teenage and adult viewers, most of which appear to have been acquired for the collection in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. We're looking at some of the more intriguing-sounding films and putting screening programs together of the best (both in physical and aesthetic quality) prints we're coming across. Our first program screened this past June at the Noe Valley library, and showcased five diverse documentaries, most of them unavailable on any home video format or (as far as we've been able to find) the internet. Our second program, screening tonight, is a little more focused, bringing together two nearly-half-hour films about North American artists. Rufino Tamayo: the Sources of His Art, a color film about a painter, is paired with My Childhood, Part 2: James Baldwin's Harlem, a black-and-white film about a writer of poetry, plays, essays, etc. that was broadcast on television in 1964. In addition to helping to select the films, I wrote short blurbs about both, but as I reprinted the Rufino Tamayo one above, I'll make you follow a link to read what I wrote on My Childhood. I hope you can make it tonight's showing of the two films. Admission is free and there will be an opportunity for discussion afterward.

On strange coincidence I discovered after the pairing of these two films was made. As I noted above, Rufino Tamayo's director Gary Conklin later made an hour-long documentary about the filming of John Huston's final film shot in Mexico, Under the Volcano. The documentary is available through the Criterion Collection edition of the 1984 feature. Well, it turns out that one of the key filmmakers involved in making My Childhood, cinematographer Ross Lowell, also traveled to Mexico to document the making of a John Huston film, namely the 1964 Night of the Iguana. Lowell's 15-minute final product is available on the Warner DVD of the Huston film. Just to add another layer to the coincidence, it was well after we selected these two films to play together tonight that I learned the Castro Theatre would be screening a 35mm print of Huston's first Mexico-set feature (and my favorite of the three), Treasure of the Sierra Madre, on September 27th.

HOW: Rufino Tamayo: the Sources of His Art and My Childhood, Part 2: James Baldwin's Harlem will screen together in 16mm prints from the SF Public Library collection.


  1. I adore Tamayo. He became one of my first loves when traveling in Mexico in my 20s. I so regret missing this program. Will you and the SFPL be offering anything during the month of October?

  2. Not October, unfortunately, Michael. Thanks so much for asking! Our ATA@SFPL programs are quarterly, and the next ones are in December, March and June. I'm excited to be able to announce that we're showing a great 16mm print of Curtis Choy's more-relevant-than ever documentary The Fall of the I-Hotel on December 1st! We can't wait to show this great film to a 2015 audience...