|Screen capture from Columbia DVD|
I compile a survey that eschews new releases in favor of focusing on our cinematic heritage not because I don't have interest in new films (you can see some of my own favorites listed here), but because I feel there are plenty of others covering that ground. And, perhaps as importantly, because I feel that the usual film rankings often obscure the circumstances under which they're viewed. So many variables play into how a viewer receives a film: method of delivery, reaction (or lack thereof) of fellow viewers, preconceptions before viewing, mood of viewer, among others competing with "quality of the film" in shaping a judgment. I know there are fastidious critics who take care to rewatch a film multiple times, often in multiple ways, before committing it to a top ten list, but though I admire the approach, it feels too much like a vain attempt to cram opinions into boxes made for facts for me to adopt it myself. Rather I prefer to present a year-in-review that emphasizes the unique nature of every viewing of a film. In-cinema screenings of older films are easier for most of us to think of as unique, I feel (in part because they very often are!)
|Screen capture from Criterion DVD|
2015 was the last year, or should I say half-year, of the Pacific Film Archive's existence at its 16-year "temporary" location at 2575 Bancroft, across from a lovely Julia Morgan- & Bernard Maybeck-designed gymnasium. I witnessed so many outstanding screenings inside this corrugated shed, and though the new location holds great promise, I'm sure I'll miss the cozy purple-cushioned seats and the walks from the BART station through the forested campus quite a bit, if not as much as I'll miss some of the staff that was not invited to make the hyperspace jump to the new screening space when it opened this past week. Luckily I took great advantage of the old space during its final few months, sampling great retrospectives for filmmakers like Billy Wilder, Gregory Markopoulos, John Stahl, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Victor Erice. But I think my favorite PFA screening of 2015 was a mystical film completely unknown to me before viewing it in February: The Day is Longer Than the Night, with the director Lana Gogoberidze on hand to discuss her poetic, pictoral approach to national narrative (my tweet at the time), in a nation that didn't exist independent of the Soviet Union at the time she made it, and the fallout from its success at a crucial moment in Soviet film history. I wish I'd been able to take in a lot more of the PFA's monumental survey of Georgian film during late 2014 and early 2015, but I'm sure glad I at least caught this precious work.
|Screen capture from Lionsgate DVD|
More than fourteen years ago, after I saw my first Budd Boetticher Westerns midway through a Pacific Film Archive series, I started to visually devour as many as I could get my eyes on, whether via VHS tapes or Turner Classc Movies airings (at my neighbor's house, since I've never subscribed to that channel myself). But for some reason I'd always held that series opener The Tall T (pictured at the top of this post) at arm's length, in the hopes of another theatrical opportunity arising. Meanwhile, the movie was released on DVD, and then went out of print, and then back in again (this time only as an on-demand DVD-R), with no such screenings appearing in this cowboy-hat-averse region until this past April when the intrepid Yerba Buena Center for the Arts finally booked it as part of a very fine Western series (couched as "Noir Westerns" to help lure in horse opera skeptics). It proved itself to be the most formally and narratively "perfect" of Boetticher's Ranown films made with unassuming star Randolph Scott. A case in which my patience really paid off in a tremendous first-time viewing.
|Screen capture from Parlour DVD|
This past May's San Francisco Silent Film Festival was filled with gems, and I didn't even have time to see all of them, I'm sure. Most of my festival favorites (Ben-Hur, the Swallow and the Titmouse, the Bert Williams presentation) have been mentioned by other IOHTE contributors this year, but since nobody else mentioned another silent film event that happened earlier that month and opened my eyes equally wide to the place of pre-talkie cinema history in modern life, I'm going to use this slot to give it some attention. It's an experimental silent film called The Big Stick/An Old Reel by Massachusetts filmmaker Saul Levine, who made a rare Frisco Bay public appearance courtesy of an SF Cinematheque co-presentation at Oakland's more underground Black Hole Cinematheque, an admission-always-free screening space that will celebrate its fifth year of operation later in 2016. The Big Stick/An Old Reel is quite simply one of the most effective "found footage" films I've ever witnessed, and a 10-minute manifesto of how "old" films don't survive simply to be seen, but to be applied to our lives. Between 1967 and 1973 (it took him six years to perfect), Levine expressed this by splicing together footage of police trying to quell a mass protest, shot with his regular-8mm camera off a television broadcast, with fragments from 8mm reduction prints of pertinent Charlie Chaplin comedies. Namely 1914's Getting Acquainted, in which the Little proto-Tramp evades Edgar Kennedy's Keystone Cop as he interacts with Mabel Normand, Mack Swain, Phyllis Allen Cecile Arnold and Harry McCoy (strangely, much of the literature identifies this film as In The Park, which Chaplin filmed in San Francisco with an entirely different cast for Essanay in 1915), and 1917's Easy Street, in which Chaplin himself plays the cop- and a pretty outrageously abusive one. As if juxtaposing these three sources together didn't create an intense enough layering, Levine creates even more with additional interventions such as blackening parts of the image and varying the rhythm of the cuts. Indeed the very nature of 8mm splices, which leave a highly noticeable scarring on the frame (perhaps exacerbated when blown up to 16mm, as I believe the print I saw was?) creates more texture in an already-dense film. And context adds yet another level of layering. Watching cycles of violence so embedded into a film print in 2015 Oakland of all times and places felt like a particularly apropos summoning.
|Screen capture from Universal Vault DVD|
The Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco presented its third annual tribute to a filmmaker from "the beautiful country"; after Pasolini in 2013 and Bertolucci in 2014 this year's maestro was Vittorio De Sica, still world famous of course for Bicycle Thieves, but whose lesser-known works like Shoeshine and Miracle in Milan are more beloved to me personally. The second Castro screening that September day was another for me to add to that list: Gold of Naples, a wise and witty portmanteau film made on the streets of De Sica's hometown, featuring six (approximately-) equally-wonderful Giuseppe Marotta short story adaptations. Sofia Loren plays a philandering wife with a misplaced wedding ring. Silvia Mangano a prostitute who takes revenge on a self-loathing nobleman. De Sica himself plays an inveterate gambler (a role that his friends considered his most autobiographical) and Totò (another Neapolitan) a put-upon clown. Other segments portray a neighborhood problem-solver and a haunting funeral procession for a dead child. Each vignette could stand on its own as a top-notch short film; together they conspire to create a filmic work worthy of standing with Rossellini's Paisan and Pasolini's Trilogy of Life films as proof that Italians have understood the power of portmanteau better than anyone.
|Screen capture from Mileston/Oscilloscope DVD|
Finally, another French film that might never have been made without the unwitting participation of Nazi Germany: Fritz Lang's only film completed during his brief stay in Paris after fleeing Hitler's Germany (in style), albeit less abruptly than he'd maintain in later interviews. The film was Liliom, a 1934 adaptation of the same Ferenc Molnar play that Frank Borzage had made with Charles Farrell in 1930. The Stanford Theatre screened both back-to-back as part of a rapturous 100-year anniversary tribute to the Fox Film Corporation, providing opportunities for me to rewatch rarely-revived personal favorites like the Borzage Liliom and Henry King's State Fair, and to see great works like John Ford's Steamboat Round the Bend for the first time. But none I'm as glad I made sure to trek to Palo Alto for as Lang's Liliom, which emphasizes the fatalistic elements of Molnar's play while presenting a "poetic realist" setting for its events to unfold in. Charles Boyer is particularly wonderful here as the title character, effectively differentiating his performance between different phases of life in a way that Farrell didn't even attempt. And the scene in which he watches his life unfold via a film projection is one of Lang's most inspired ever. Apart from a few late-career Satyajit Ray films co-produced by Soprofilms or Canal+, this is the first French film (made under the Erich Pommer-led Fox Europa) that I can recall the Stanford screening in the decade-and-a-half I've been paying attention to the venue's programming. I'd certainly be happy to see more.