Monday, April 9, 2018

SFFILM 61 Day 6: Chew-Chew Baby

The 61st San Francisco International Film Festival began last week and runs through April 17th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

Screen capture of Chew-Chew Baby from Universal DVD
Chew-Chew Baby (USA: James "Shamus" Culhane, 1945)
playing: 8:00 tonight at the Castro Theatre as part of A Celebration of Oddball Films With Marc Capelle's Red Room Orchestra

Chew-Chew Baby is the thirteenth of twenty-five theatrical cartoons starring Woody Woodpecker (after his debut in the Andy Panda 'toon Knock Knock) produced by Walter Lantz for Universal Pictures before Lantz had a falling out with Universal and first took his cartoons to United Artists, then stopped production for most of 1949 and 1950 (he returned to Universal in time to release a Woody cartoon in January 1951). It's the fourth Woody cartoon directed by former Disney & Chuck Jones animator James "Shamus" Culhane, who Leonard Maltin called "the best thing that happened to Woody, and to Lantz, in the early 1940s". The frenetic musical finale of Culhane's first Woody Woodpecker cartoon The Barber of Seville famously used a style of "fast cutting" inspired by Soviet montage. Similarly, Chew-Chew Baby uses an almost subliminal upside-down frame that seems borrowed from the avant-garde to make a gag have extra impact late in the cartoon.

You won't see Chew-Chew Baby on any list of SFFILM festival selections on their website or in the paper program guides sprinkled around town. The list of 16mm prints from the late, great Stephen Parr's Oddball Films collection screening tonight at the Castro hasn't officially been made public. I learned that Chew-Chew Baby is planned to be among them by listening to DJ Marilynn's March 26, 2018 episode of KPOO-FM's "Let Me Touch Your Mind" (archived here) in which bandleader Marc Capelle talks about some of the films his Red Room Orchestra has prepared musical accompaniments for, also including what I think are probably the 1989 Neutrogena infomercial Choosing a Sunscreen described here, and Denys Colomb de Daunant's surreal A Dream of Wild Horses, a frequent Oddball Films screening selection.

Chew-Chew Baby was screened at Oddball in a 2016 drag cinema survey curated by Kat Shuchter, and a few years prior at one of Parr's own Strange Sinema shows. Though I didn't catch these particular screenings, Oddball was one of the few Frisco Bay screening venues that regularly showed animated film prints, usually in excellent condition. Parr often talked of how much of his archive came from the deaccessioned collections of Bible Belt university libraries, where the sports films were run ragged and the art films totally pristine. Perhaps vintage cartoons fell closer to the latter category. I can't count the number of great ones I had the pleasure of viewing in his twice-weekly screening showcases before they ended in December 2016 (he hosted a few more shows in his labyrinthine Mission District loft in 2017, before he died in October.) Soon after Parr's passing, I compiled a twitter thread of fifty of my favorite films seen at his space, 48 of them for the first time. A good third of the list was animation (most of the rest of it falling into "documentary" or "experimental" categories) and it includes Pantry Panic, the third Woody Woodpecker star vehicle made by Lantz (prior to Culhane's arrival) and by my reckoning the only one from the 1940s I've ever seen projected in a cinema space- until tonight, that is.

Beyond sussing out a few of the Oddball Films collection prints screening, I'm not precisely sure what's going to happen at the Castro tonight. Crucially, I'm not sure if the prints being shown that already have music and dialogue (including Chew-Chew Baby) will screen with the Red Room Orchestra's musicians and spoken word artists' sonic contributions integrated into the original soundtracks, or presented instead of them. Either approach may have its own aesthetic appeal, but both approaches treat the Oddball collection less as in its role as a repository for curated screenings, in which films were usually shown as their creators (whether these were celebrated auteurs or uncredited artisans working on behalf of faceless creators) intended, and more in the spirit of its existence as a stock footage archive, supplying hard-to-find images (more often than sound) for documentaries and features, including SFFILM 2018 selections Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, RBG and closing night feature Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot. Using existing art to create new art.

Purists may cry foul, but before they do I'd just like to talk about an amazing event at the Luggage Store Gallery on Market Street, where Stephen Parr and Other Cinema's Craig Baldwin faced off in a kind of "dueling archivists" presentation of their 16mm material, screening films in part or in full as they pleased, creating connections across their "sets" of each about an hour that helped unlock certain thoughts about media filmed in and about my hometown that had never occurred to me before, and that in many cases probably wouldn't had each film played out as intended by its makers. Parr showed certain favorites like A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire, Blackie the Wonder Horse Swims the Golden Gate, Jerry Abrams' Be-In and the untitled home-movie footage known lately as San Francisco Excelsior: Low Rider Car Show in complete prints, but let an excerpt from Let's See: Lopsideland bleed into a section of San Francisco: Queen of the West which bled into some of USA Poetry: Allen Ginsberg & Lawrence Ferlinghetti (this last of which, incidentally, will screen for free in its entirety at the SFPL Main Library as part of a Poetry Month event I've helped organize on April 28th), a kind of editing-as-performance that would probably have infuriated a prior version of myself as much as soundtrack tinkering would have, but that I responded to deeply. This event happened to occur on the day Andrew Sarris died, as if to hammer home the point that filmmaker intentions are not the be-all, end-all of film appreciation and understanding. Like Baldwin (who projected an equally impressive "set"), Parr was an example of archivist as auteur.

So I'm opening my mind to have an experience guided less by filmmakers such as Culhane and Daunant and more by Parr's collector instincts and by the musicians who have been assembled. I was fortunate to have an opportunity to speak with one of them, experimental percussion master William Winant, about the musical portion of the presentation. I've seen Winant peform in various diverse capacities over the years, such as with my then-favorite band Oingo Boingo at the Warfield in the early 1990s, and with his own ensemble at the annual Chapel of the Chimes Garden of Memory solstice event in Oakland. And he was part of one of my favorite San Francisco International Film Festival live music/film events in recent years, the 2013 presentation of Paul Leni's Waxworks accompanied by Winant, Mike Patton, Matthias Bossi and Scott Amendola, which is why I wanted his perspective on tonight's event. He told me that event (which is documented on youtube, though I'm not certain the sound & image line up precisely, thanks to the difference in film & video frame rates) was "99.9% improvised" outside the cover of Jacques Brel's "La Mort" that ended the show. Winant said that tonight's show will be "completely different", as "everything is in song form. The lot of the stuff is through-composed. People will be reading charts, or people will be reading lead sheets, and basically, they're song forms, or jazz forms where the musicians play over lead sheets." He named Capelle, Dina Macabbee, Devin Hoff and Ben Goldberg as among the Red Room Orchestra members who have composed and arranged a song or multiple songs to be performed alongside each of the Oddball film prints.

Finally, though this is a particularly overstuffed piece, it seems like a good place for me to publish a letter I composed this past January, when the Roxie hosted a memorial for Parr that I was unable to attend. The memorial is available to view online, as is a wonderful video tribute to Parr called 275 Capp Street made by one of his collaborators, Adam Dziesinski. Here's the (slightly edited) text of my letter:
Sadly, the plane flight Kerry Laitala and I had to come back from our New England holiday trip just got cancelled due to a snowstorm, and were unable to book another flight until Monday, so we’ll be missing this event we’d both looked forward to so very much as a way to commune with friends and strangers who’d been so deeply impacted by Stephen as we had.  
Kerry, a filmmaker, had been honored to collaborated with Parr on at least a half-dozen showings of her own work, and of work they’d collaboratively curated from their own archives. Few San Francisco curators have been as loyally supportive of Kerry’s work over the years as Steven, and enthusiasm like his means a lot to a mid-career filmmaker trying to sustain an exhibition portfolio. 
I, a voracious cinephile, feel embarrassed I never attended Oddball until I moved directly across the street from it from 2010-2014, but during that time (and to a slightly lesser extent since) I went many dozens of times and felt so welcomed by Stephen and his staff. I’m glad I got to know him not just as a film lover but as a neighbor who at any minute could come over and borrow an unusual piece of AV equipment like it was a cup of sugar (I lived with musicians & these occasional lendings went both ways across Capp Street).
When Kerry and I met at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2011 the fact that we quickly realized we had a few mutual friends was key to the encounter turning from a random flirtation to something deeper. Stephen was one of these few, and we so wish he were still around, not simply for the selfish reason that we’d want to let him know we’ve finally decided to get married this year, but because we know he had so much more to share with the world.
SFFILM61 Day 6
Other festival options: Today is the second of three screenings of Hong Sangsoo's unassuming little delight Claire's Camera, and the final screening not currently at RUSH status. Tonight also marks the sole SFFILM showing of Olivier Assayas's Cold Water, a 1994 film recently made available via DCP by Janus; I wouldn't expect another chance to see it in 35mm (the last in these parts was 2007) coming around soon, or maybe ever, so you'll have to shelve your anti-DCP biases if you want to see this in a cinema.

Non-SFFILM option: Speaking of animation, Oakland's all-digital New Parkway Theater is in the midst of an Animation Week and today's offerings include Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud's Persepolis, which I can definitely recommend. Today they also screen Cowboy Bebop: the Movie, which I haven't seen, and (inexplicably) the particularly terrible dubbed version of Hayao Miyazaki's glorious Princess Mononoke. Wait to see that one subtitled.

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