Sunday, February 7, 2016

Frako Loden: IOHTE

The San Francisco Bay Area is still home to a rich cinephilic culture nurtured in large part by a diverse array of cinemas, programmers and moviegoers. I'm honored to present a selection of favorite screenings experienced by local cinephiles in 2015. An index of participants can be found here.

IOHTE contributor Frako Loden is an educator and a writer, who publishes at and elsewhere.

Image courtesy San Francisco Silent Film Festival
1. For me the highlight of 2015's repertory screenings was not even a finished film—just a collection of takes for a film that was never to be. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival in June presented Bert Williams: Lime Kiln Field Day, a compilation of rushes for a 1913 film, starring black comic actor Bert Williams and a large number of important black stage entertainers, that the white producers Biograph/Klaw and Erlanger abandoned and never completed. The long preamble at the Castro by MOMA's Ron Magliozzi was rushed and packed with amazing information about the history of black people on Broadway and this particular production. The would-be film's plot isn't unusual--a black social club gears up for a picnic and ball--but the treatment and circumstances of its making certainly were. First, it was a truly interracial production, with white directors and a black assistant director and majority black cast with a few small white parts. Second, the black characters are middle class and their individual personalities, including a rare romantic kiss between Williams and Odessa Warren Grey (who also designed the costumes), preclude the usual stereotyping. A lively ride on a merry-go-round and an elaborate cakewalk sequence were exciting  highlights. The 50 minutes of footage, including repeated takes and glimpses of between-take preparation, gave me a joyous rush of imagining what American filmmaking might have been like if more films like this had been produced. Magliozzi thinks that the release of Birth of a Nation in 1915 was  what put this film on the shelf: it wasn't racist enough. Birth of a Nation unhappily set the standard for racist stereotyping of Hollywood films to come.

2. A lesser revelation at the December Silent Film Festival, also at the Castro, was Marcel L'Herbier's 1924 L'Inhumaine and its crazy Art Deco montage finale, in which a rejected young scientist-suitor brings his inhumanly cruel paramour back to life after a fatal snakebite in a laboratory designed by Fernand Leger. The frenetic sequence, which was a scandal in its day, could have inspired artists like Devo, Klaus Nomi and David Bowie. The film was accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra, which long ago established its reputation as one of the finest silent-film musical ensembles active today.

Image courtesy of Janus Films
3. Two years after the death of the great documentarist Les Blank, we were finally able to see his long-suppressed 1974 documentary on Leon Russell, A Poem is a Naked Person. Thanks to Blank's son Harrod, the film screened at the Opera Plaza followed by a Q&A with Russell himself, rolling to the screen in a mobility scooter and never removing his shades or signature hat. It was a bittersweet occasion to see a vivid, eccentric evocation of Russell's career and discover that Russell is just as laconic and taciturn about the film as Blank would have been.

4. The strangest, most astonishing repertory film experience this year was at the Roxie for the re-release of Roar, a sui-generis 1981 horror film directed by Tippi Hedren's husband Noel Marshall and starring the couple and their children, the most famous of which was a teenage Melanie Griffith. Of course the real stars are a menagerie of big cats allowed to roam free through the family's house. The publicity for the film is a list of casualties involving fractures, ripped scalps, bites and gangrene—some of which are captured on-screen. A roiling swarm of tawny manes, claws and jaws leaves an unforgettable impression.  

Screen capture from Sony DVD
5. Possibly the most joyous rep-film experience I had was at the Roxie shortly before Christmas for Michael Schultz's 1975 black kung fu romance-comedy The Last Dragon, with host/fanboy/racism critic W. Kamau Bell and star Taimak in attendance. The rowdy audience knew the dialogue and Motown song lyrics by heart. Bell christened the audience as an official Black Lives Matter gathering and that a meeting would commence after the screening. Bell's affection for the film and Taimak, whose performance inspired the adolescent Bell to think that a black hero could be both kickass and serenely centered, was a happy way to end 2015.

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