Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Bruce Conner and Crossroads (1976)


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Last week San Francisco was treated to a nearly-complete retrospective of one of its hometown heroes of experimental film, Bruce Conner. Conner is perhaps best known for his first film, to quote the Cinema 16 program announcement for its screening in early 1961, "a pessimistic comedy of executions, catastrophes and sex" called a Movie. Later films like Cosmic Ray, Permian Strata and Mongoloid (with songs by Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and Devo, respectively, as soundtracks) would inspire both the rapid-cutting and archive-excavating techniques now thought of as clichés in the music video form.

His films were split into two programs of shorts (most films run for 5-10 minutes or so) each broken up by an intermission q-and-a session with Conner, who is at 72 years of age very sprightly and just the slightest bit obstreperous when he doesn't like an interviewer's question. I attended the program focusing on the more rarely-screened films and versions of films; it was quite instructive to see two alternate versions of Report screened on a single program, and I was delighted to see material like 1981's not-in-the-imdb Mea Culpa (music by Brian Eno & David Byrne) and a new "remix" of Cosmic Ray using a digital split screen technique. It's exciting to see new material from this great filmmaker, even if it (like last year's Luke) is rooted in projects started decades ago. In the q-and-a Conner intimated that he doesn't need to continue making the fast-paced films he's famous for when so many others are doing it for him.

The highlight of the evening for me was finally seeing Conner's longest (at 37 minutes) and most leisurely paced film, Crossroads. Constructed out of footage taken from 27 different cameras watching the nuclear explosion at Bikini Atoll in July 1946, Conner's film forced me to contend with the beauty of its iconic mushroom cloud imagery and the concept of cinema as a record of destruction and decay. The division of the film into two halves, marked by the change of composer (Patrick Gleeson to Terry Riley) lends a taste of narrative structure that most of us expect from documentaries.

This year I was first exposed to the term "structuralist film" and the recent work of James Benning (13 Lakes and Ten Skies, each of which are composed of ten-minute-long static shots). Though I feel like I'm struggling to catch up to an understanding of this kind of filmmaking, I wonder why Crossroads, though made in a completely different manner, shouldn't be considered a sibling of this movement. It shares certain (at least surface) qualities, and I found myself contemplating the relationship between nature and the camera much as I did while watching a Benning film. At the same time, Riley's minimalist soundtrack accompanying images of destruction created a link in my mind to Godfrey Reggio's Philip Glass-infused Koyaanisqatsi and its decidedly non-structuralist progeny. I can't help but feel certain that Reggio was familiar with Bruce Conner's film. And I wonder if perhaps Conner hasn't made another like Crossroads because, again, others have been doing it for him.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

DeMille and de Mille


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No, this is not another blog post about Anthony Hopkins. Last week I saw a pair of films directed by the DeMille brothers. One apiece, not working as a pair like the Coens or the Pangs or the Farrellys (Just who started this brother-directing-team trend anyway? I'm having trouble thinking of anyone earlier than the Brothers Quay). Cecil B. DeMille everyone knows for having directed the Ten Commandments (which I haven't seen) and the Greatest Show on Earth (which is inaptly named as it's probably the worst Best Picture Oscar winner ever) but he made some very watchable smaller-scale films earlier in his career, particularly in the silent era. I highly recommend Male and Female for some good, class-conscious comedy from 1919. Cecil's older brother William C. de Mille (they each spelled their last name differently for some reason) directed a long list of silents too but quit Hollywood after completing only a few talkies. The final film he directed on his own was the 1932 drama Two Kinds of Women, starring Miriam Hopkins as Emma Krull, the daughter of a "hick Senator" (Irving Pichel) from South Dakota who falls in love with a New York playboy (Phillips Holmes).

Two Kinds of Women for the most part plays like a typical romantic melodrama of the time. In part because the Holmes character is underdeveloped, Emma seems very naive (to her disapproving father and to the audience) to put faith in her new beau's renuciations of his former lifestyle. We're set up to see the usual conflict between "jazz age" values and traditional ones, but Emma sees no such conflict, moving into the world of speakeasies and police raids without abandoning her wholesome, Midwestern outlook. Though the script feels like nothing special, there are a couple of shocking directorial choices, especially in the context of a studio-themed series in which a certain house style is maintained. Besides the famed "Paramount Glow" there was also, for example, an avoidance of any camera movement drawing attention to itself. De Mille shatters this convention several times, most startlingly with a hand-held shot taken from the point of view of a drunken gold digger. There were audible gasps in the audience; one might even have been mine.

The accompanying co-feature was Cecil B. DeMille's This Day and Age. Absent any real lasting stars in the cast, it has become one of DeMille's most obscure and rarely-seen films. The most famous face belongs to Charles Bickford (also found in another Balboa series film, the outrageous White Woman), who plays a racketeer with ironclad connections in all the centers of power throughout the city except for the student body council at the local high school. When he murders Herman, an independently-minded tailor popular with a group of students, they determine to bring him to justice even if the community of adults is paralyzed by his power.

When a Cecil B. DeMille film is working, it unrelentingly sweeps me into the passions and thrills of the story, like a speech by a gifted demagogue. Thus did This Day and Age, milking the maximum narrative mileage out of each on-screen injustice against the youth and society, helped along by a healthy dose of salacious appeal in the form of a subplot in which a schoolgirl (Judith Allen) is used as sexual bait to distract the racketeer's bodyguard. It's only once DeMille spends several minutes more than absolutely necessary on elaborate, extra-packed shots of a victory parade from the scene of Bickford's inquisition (over a pit of rats!) and forced confession, to the courthouse where a previously unsentimental judge proclaims the mob of junior vigilantes "heroes", that I really had time to pause and reflect on what I'd been seeing. I remembered DeMille's conservative political bent, and suddenly noticed how the film acted as a mirror of fascist youth movements in Europe in the early 1930s in its expression of a desire for a new generation to assume the mantle of leadership from adults immobilized in the face of corruption.

I wouldn't necessarily go as far as some have in calling the film a fascist one, in part because it's missing a crucial implication we expect from the word today, that of racial purity. The extremely sympathetic character Herman is a Jewish immigrant who prepares ethnic food for the students, knowing that "the stomach is the last place to get patriotic." Robert Birchard, in his data-laden but context-light book Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood, points to this and to the existence of a "well-dressed and well-spoken black classmate" whose role in the plot against the racketeer requires him
to masquerade as a stereotypical shoeshine boy. This acknowledgement of black role-playing as a mode of social survival within the predominant white society is virtually unique in pre-1960s American film. (page 262)
Birchard is correct in pointing this out, but his attempt to completely exonerate the film from fascist implications doesn't quite convince. In the prior paragraph, he calls the film an "allegory (represented by youth versus adults) about the necessity for society to renew and maintain the will to defend itself against totalitarian forces (the gangsters)." But if the gangsters are the totalitarian force in the film, what do we call the vigilante methods of intimidation, interrogation and torture so admired by the judge at the end of the film? Clearly the film, like so many Hollywood products, leaves enough room to be read both ways. The fact that the youths use gangster-like tactics on the gangster makes it very similar to a film released by Warner only two months earlier, The Mayor of Hell. Except in that film the youth rebellion is led by James Cagney's gangster character, while This Day and Age cloaks the rebellion's gangster tendencies by casting his mob exclusively with youthfully innocent actors and extras.

Tonight I'm going back to the Balboa to see two more Cecil B. DeMille films, both the type of period epics he is most remembered for: the Sign of the Cross and Cleopatra. I've never seen either before, and I'm very excited to see how they play with such a fascinating (if somewhat repellent) film as This Day and Age fresh in my mind. Will I be swept up by the narrative again, only to find myself cheering for a questionable cause?

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Saturday Nitrates


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The other day a fellow cinephile asked me if I'd seen Good Night, and Good Luck or Capote yet. My answer was no, that these days I'm generally not drawn to seeing films that seem to me (perhaps I'm being short-sighted) to be made for DVD or cable TV as much as they're made for theatrical release, no matter how good they're reported to be. I'm much more likely to put a priority on seeing something purely cinematic like The Weeping Meadow, especially since I've never seen a Theo Angelopoulos film in a cinema before. His previous film, the Cannes Palme d'Or-winning Eternity and a Day was theatrically released while I was living abroad in a city where prints of his films probably have never played, and Ulysses' Gaze before my cinematic interests included 3-hour art films by Greek auteurs. I won't pretend that I understood the significance of everything I saw in The Weeping Meadow, but I can assure you that my eyes popped over and over. This epic, which Angelopoulos intends to follow with two sequels, is undeniably composed for large screen theatrical viewing, not for even the most audacious of home systems. His long shots need to overpower the viewer with their complexity and their size. His long takes cannot be interrupted by the distractions of the home environment. A pause button would kill this film, and its incredible debut performance by Alexandra Aidini. Perhaps that makes it somehow too fragile to be of much use in the current aesthetic climate, but as long as there's a place like the Balboa taking the risk of showing such a film (if only for four days; The Weeping Meadow ends this Monday Oct. 31!) I'm going to be there.

The same reasoning draws me to as many revived classic films as I can fit into my viewing schedule. Films made in the era before anyone thought seriously of reducing and broadcasting them to mass audiences can feel like revelations when returned to their natural setting. Such was the case of Singin' in the Rain, which I saw at Palo Alto's Stanford Theatre last weekend. I'd only ever seen it on a television set before, and though I liked it, to be honest I'd never quite grasped why it could be so highly esteemed as to earn a place on so many notable top 10 lists; why it had become perhaps the quintessential Hollywood musical. No wonder; in a way I'd never really seen it! It wasn't just that the vastness of the screen helped me to see details like the broken hairs on Donald O'Connor's bow by the end of "Fit as a Fiddle", or the wrinkle in Cyd Charisse's panty hose when she appears in the "Broadway Melody" sequence. It was that the deep blacks, bright whites and vivid candy store colors emphasized the story's fantastic elements and made me more easily forgive the anti-historical, pro-talkie mythologizing. I was able to dream along with the film.

I don't think I'd ever seen any Technicolor print so rich in color and clarity. So when I noticed that the Stanford's printed calendar boasted that every Saturday would feature a screening of "a beautiful original print (usually nitrate from the UCLA film archive)" I had to wonder if I had just seen a nitrate print! I was familiar with Paolo Cherchi Usai's term "epiphany of nitrate", meaning the moment a cinephile may have when viewing cellulose nitrate (the Stanford being one of the few places in the world insured to run the obsolete material through its projectors for the general public) when the palpable difference between it and safety stock is understood, and all but assumed that my experience with this Singin' in the Rain print must have been mine!

But subsequent research showed me to be wrong. I found sources saying that the original nitrate print of Singin' in the Rain had been lost forever, and others implying that Singin' in the Rain was not quite old enough to have been distributed on nitrate prints, the format having been retired in 1951. In any case, a call to the Stanford Theatre's box office confirmed that the Saturday nitrate screenings will always be for the films being shown at 7:30 PM. I had seen nitrate after all; the other half of the double bill. It was a nicely-colored, but horribly scratched (the worst I've seen at the Stanford) and badly spliced print of the airheaded Don Ameche/Betty Grable musical Moon Over Miami. Nothing jawdropping. No epiphany, nitrate or not.

But I'm going back. According to the person I spoke to on the box office phone number, they'll be showing at least six more nitrate prints over the next few months, including Seven Days to Noon (tonight), Stormy Weather (Nov. 5), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus (Nov. 12, and specifically promised to be "gorgeous" in the program guide), Down Argentine Way (Dec. 3), Ernst Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait (Dec. 10) and Cover Girl (Dec. 17). I know you can't expect to force an epiphany, but I'm going to see if I can't try anyway. And who knows, maybe there will be some incredible safety stock restorations as second features?

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Boom Crash Opera


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Nobody would mistake me for a regular operagoer. In 1990 I went on a high school field trip to see a matinee of Die Fledermaus at the SF Opera. On a 1996 trip to New York I caught a performance of the Philip Glass opera the Voyage at the Met. And the other night I saw my third-ever "legitimate" opera performance, Doctor Atomic, about Robert Oppenheimer and the Trinity test. I was impressed. The John Adams score was great (admittedly I'm a partisan; I think Harmonium just might be the greatest piece of music composed in my lifetime.) The starkly radioactive design of the sets, lights and costumes created an otherworldly space on the War Memorial Opera House stage. The placement of the actors' bodies on the stage reinforced the sense that humanity was at this moment perhaps more clearly than at any other, dealing with something it was simply unable to truly comprehend. The final moments of the opera were particularly breathtaking and intense.

Yet something felt missing from the experience. I'm inclined to agree with the various reviews I've found that place the blame on the libretto, which was built out of a wildly diverse selection of texts of completely different registers, including favorite poems of Oppenheimer's and declassified government documents. Such blending is not a bad concept and in fact fits with Adams's record as a "populist" composer. Except that it didn't really feel as if there was any blending, sonnets difficult to absorb on a single listen unceremoniously dumped next to transcripts of a lot of talk about the weather. As a result, the opera felt entirely too episodic, without enough consistency of threads of theme or character running through it to sustain a sense of drama. Project setbacks would be introduced and seemingly solved before the next aria. Though the music conveyed an urgency that would make me susceptible to being grabbed by the throat and pulled headfirst into the monumental ethical dilemmas inherent in this moment in history, only in a few scenes did "Doctor Atomic" approach that feeling.

Perhaps I was supposed to be already quite familiar with the poems and/or the other documents used as text, and if I had been I would have been able to comprehend how they actually subtly fit together to form a narrative line. Or perhaps narrative line was intentionally out the window, or simply boiled down to a three-hour anticipation of the inevitable detonation. But somehow I don't think an effect that deliberate was really the basis of this pastiche libretto. More likely it was a compromised consequence of Alice Goodman's sudden withdrawal as librettist shortly before its due date. Goodman's recent explanation for bowing out doesn't seem borne out by the finished product. Whether this is because her concerns about anti-Semitism in the opera's structure were overblown all along, were remedied without her participation, or were valid but undetectable to an inexperienced audience member like myself, it's a fascinating subplot, and one that I somehow doubt will come to light until a day when the various parties' own documents become declassified.

A reason why Doctor Atomic's backstage drama is so fascinating connects to the reason why I felt compelled to see the opera in the first place: the Death of Klinghoffer. It's some kind of irony (which kind probably largely depends on your political persuasions) that Goodman reused the same "anti-Semitism" label that had been applied to her last collaboration with Adams and Sellars. I only became familiar with this opera about the 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists through the Penny Woolcock film, which I first saw with a rather small Castro Theatre crowd at the 2003 SFIFF. I was incredibly moved, most-especially during the scenes where the panicked hijackers begin terrorizing the infinitely-more-frightened passengers and crew in the ship's dining room. Somehow, in the tragedy of the abrupt violence, singing feels like not only an operatic convention but a hyper-realistic effect even more appropriate than crying or shouting to convey the anguish of the situation. Woolcock's decision to shoot in a very immediate documentary style paradoxically minimized distraction from the music and text at the same time that it fleshed out details of character and setting.

This was my first time seeing an opera on film (opera really has been a big blind spot for me!) and I was as impressed by the BBC production's ambitiousness and daring as I was emotionally drained by the experience. I was disheartened to see how neglected the film was by critics, audiences, and theatre bookers that year. I can only assume that people are either scared off by the "opera" tag or the "anti-Semitic" one that has followed the Death of Klinghoffer since before its premiere nearly 15 years ago. Perhaps the opera and/or the film are indeed anti-Semitic; it's not obvious to me. I've encountered compelling arguments why it isn't, made by Adams and Woolcock on the DVD commentary track and by this guy here. I haven't yet heard a compelling case that it is though.

I've since taken a few stabs at trying to see how other opera films look next to Woolcock's. Bergman's the Magic Flute is a light confection in comparison. I didn't have the patience to watch more than the first 20 minutes of Losey's Don Giovanni on DVD. Maybe it was just my occasional Mozart allergies acting up again. Aria was an interestingly weird experiment but in an entirely different vein. Three Tales was even more interesting, weird, and different (and, like Doctor Atomic, strangely unsatisfying as a whole). I'm excited to try out the Tales of Hoffman when Criterion releases it next month, but I'm not expecting similarities between it and the Death of Klinghoffer. I'm perhaps most intrigued by Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium, directed by its composer. (Should I say composed by its director?)

Anyway, what I'm trying to get around to saying is that I highly recommend cinephiles take a look at the the Death of Klinghoffer DVD, even if you've had bad experiences with opera in the past. Let me know what you think of it, if you think it's anti-Semitic or not, if there are other opera films you've seen that share its aesthetic philosophies, or if I need to wipe off my Harmonium afterglow before you'll trust a John Adams recommendation from me again.

Oh, and check out the final final few Doctor Atomic Goes Nuclear programs at the PFA. I've been remiss.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Lakes and Skies


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Three weeks ago I went to the Pacific Film Archive to view my first James Benning film, 13 Lakes. Though I'd heard of Benning and some of his films (particularly his California Trilogy) before, I only had a vague idea of what they might be like until two directors (Amir Muhammed and Jenni Olson) mentioned him as an influence on their films (Tokyo Magic Hour and The Joy of Life, respectively) at the San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this year. I was intrigued, as the most Benning-inspired segment was my favorite part of Amir's film, and Olson's film was my favorite of the entire festival.

And so I found myself sitting before the PFA's screen, watching thirteen carefully-composed, ten-minute-long shots of American lakes. And so I experienced a different way of watching a film than I ever had before. Changes in the images were usually slow and subtle, with very little of what is normally evoked by the term "screen movement". The first was Jackson Lake in Wyoming, and it was a study of the changing light and color at dawn, with Mount Moran and its reflection in the water as the canvas. After ten minutes and a fade to black, each shot gave way to a new lake with a new soundtrack, a new reflection of light on its surface, a new cloud cover, a new rhythm of rippling in the water. Though I've spent quite a bit of time in the outdoors, and even spent summers trying to teach teenagers about observing nature, I'm not sure I've ever really looked at something for even ten uninterrupted minutes before. Benning's film is a solicitation for viewers to look at his film as they might at a painting, or would if the oil in a painting could shimmer, swell, float, foam, flutter, or wave. It also asks us to look more closely at the natural world.

I won't pretend that I caught on right away. I nodded off for a bit in the middle of the second shot at Moosehead Lake, so its composition didn't burn into my brain like the other twelve did. I grew quite restless during the Salton Sea segment, even though I found it humorous to hear the constant soundtrack of jetskiers' engines, and then to see the vehicles unwittingly play peekaboo with Benning's camera. It wasn't until the calming Lake Superior shot that I started to realize the usefulness of taking the whole image in at once rather than darting my eyes around the screen looking for what little movement there was to be had. Still, this method worked better for some shots than for others. In fact, each lake seemed to suggest a slightly different way of looking and listening. At the speed at which wind blew snow onto the surface of Lake Iliamna it seemed almost unlikely that Benning and his camera weren't blown forward into the icy Alaskan water too. By contrast, the water in Crater Lake was tranquil enough to cast a perfect reflection of the rim of the dormant volcano in which it lies, which naturally encouraged attention to focus on changes in the soundtrack. The final shot left me exhilarated; the rippling waves of Oneida Lake moved toward the camera at just the right angle and speed to create the illusion of a weightless tracking shot. If I made sure to keep my eyes focused on the edges of the frame it seemed as if I were floating out over the lake, though never getting any closer to the opposite bank.

The next day I read this Senses of Cinema article on 13 Lakes. Its author, Michael J. Anderson, insightfully knits connections between Benning's film and the concept of the frame André Bazin explored when writing on Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game. The essay culminates in a discussion of the Lake Iliamna shot, leading to a fascinating conception of the cinema screen as an imagined portal to the world on the other side of Benning's camera. And then for the bizarre postscript: Anderson tries to define 13 Lakes as a "defiantly non-environmentalist" film, morphing an intelligent piece of film criticism into a conservative rant against what he sees as an "environmental orthodoxy."

I'm all for film and art that can bear a wide diversity of interpretations. I do not require films to express particular political points of view I ascribe to; in fact I find the majority of films that do so to be rather tiresome because of it. And some of my favorite films can be found on this list, most notably Fort Apache, Ruggles of Red Gap and I Know Where I'm Going! (though I think Ian Christie's Criterion DVD commentary makes a strong case for the latter film as exemplary of Britons' swing toward Labour at the end of World War II). Still, I absolutely consider myself an environmentalist, and do not want to let Mr. Anderson's conclusions stand unchallenged. Especially not at this moment in time, when one of the lakes captured in Benning's film, Lake Ponchartrain, has become so absolutely relevant.

I am open to a true interpretation of 13 Lakes as a non-environmentalist film. However, the evidence Anderson supplies in his argument does not come from the film itself, but from his evaluation of comments Benning made in response to audience members' questions after a screening: one of the most telling moments of the post-film wrap-up, one viewer began her question by stating that she knows that the filmmaker is an environmentalist. To this, Benning quickly rejoined, glibly, that he is in fact not an environmentalist, as should be evident by the ten thousand miles he drove in the making of the film. While he later conceded that one of the points of the film is the condition of the lakes at the moment of filming, he held that he is an outsider to the movement. The point being made by Benning was not that he is unconcerned with nature, but rather that he does not agree with all of environmentalism's tenets.

More to the point, Benning does not share certain presuppositions of the environmentalist movement. Tellingly, Benning in a further elaboration of his divergence from this school of thought averred that the lakes themselves would be around long after the rest of us have gone. The implication of this observation, certainly, distinguishes the director from environmentalist orthodoxy: to Benning, the environment is resilient, whereas it is its frailty that instructs environmentalist orthodoxy.
Anderson wants readers to accept a straw man construction of an emotionally-based environmental movement ignorant of scientific fact. Such a construction can be seductive because everyone has encountered environmentalists who seem wholly unconcerned with facts, or those with a naive conception of the natural world they're trying to protect.

But Anderson tries to tar the whole of environmentalism with the same brush, especially when he quotes a Michael Crichton speech calling for an environmental movement "based in objective and verifiable science" without offering substantial evidence that it isn't already. Most environmentalists' conviction comes not out of an emotional or "religious" wellspring, but as a rational response to scientific facts. Facts that indicate a conflict between the current patterns of production and consumption in industrial and post-industrial societies and the health and overall quality of life for human beings, whether on a local or global scale.

Taking a closer look at Anderson's piece, there are indications in the body of his analysis that foreshadow his conclusions in the postscript, making it seem a little less like a non-sequitur. His very first paragraph minimizes "human incursion" in the film, ignoring the fact that several of the filmed lakes have been greatly shaped by human intervention. For example, the Salton Sea took its current form early in the last century with the flooding of a man-made canal, and would dry up if not for the irrigation of the Coachella and Imperial valleys. Lake Powell was just a stretch of the Colorado River until the completion of Glen Canyon Dam in 1963. And the visible clumps of algae floating on the edge of Lake Okeechobee are surely caused by agricultural nutrient runoff. Later Anderson states that the movement in 13 Lakes is created by changes "inherent in nature". The film provides a preponderance of evidence against this notion, most clearly in the Lake Pontchartrain shot in which on-screen movement is provided by an endless stream of automobiles driving across the Causeway that connects New Orleans to the bedroom communities on the lake's North Shore. This image evoked the relationship between the oil industry and the ecological condition of the lake when I saw it three weeks ago; post-Katrina it becomes all the more charged with significance.

A week after the 13 Lakes screening, I went back to the PFA to watch its companion piece Ten Skies and to hear Benning talk about his work in person. Perhaps because 13 Lakes had warmed me up for it, I found Ten Skies to be an even more beautiful and revelatory work. Because its ten shots were not literally grounded by a horizon line as in 13 Lakes, watching them was an experience even more alien to someone weaned on "traditional" forms of cinema. The painterly qualities of the light, color and form were all the more apparent, as were the constant changes in all three. And because the essence of the film was nothing else but the ephemeral vapor of clouds and smoke, completely isolated in the frame from any recognizable topography, watching the film seemed even more than for 13 Lakes an exercise in the act of seeing images outside the context of any text. A subject without matter, if you will.

Yet once again I could not view the film as completely divorced from environmentalist concerns. The second shot in Ten Skies is of smoke rising out of a fire. As I watched the battle between the dark smoke and the remaining patches of light blue for control of the frame, questions emerged. Was this a forest fire or a grass fire? How was it started? Was it a controlled burn or a wildfire? Does the helicopter on the soundtrack help answer these questions? The seventh shot showed white steam billowing out of what must have been some kind of industrial plant, and similar questions were raised. And the ninth shot contained little, dark streaks that I assumed were patches of smog or some other breed of pollution. Surely the filmmaker did not include such shots in his film and expect the viewer to ignore the consequences of human impact on the natural environment?

A question-and-answer session following the film provided me with an opportunity to solicit an opinion on this matter from Benning himself. Midway through the session, nervously gripping the microphone in my hand, I explained that I'd seen 13 Lakes the previous week and subsequently read an article claiming that he wasn't an environmentalist. I asked him to clarify whether he was an environmentalist, an anti-environmentalist, or neither, and to comment about how his films reflect his views on environmentalism. He began his answer by repeating the line reported by Anderson, that his thousands of miles of driving to these lakes surely conflicted with environmentalism. But he went on to clarify further that in fact he was quite concerned with the state of the environment; that he was an environmentalist after all, but simply not a practicing one. Which, he admitted, made him in fact a hypocrite, something he was not proud of.

I am not suggesting that this exchange, recorded with uncertain accuracy in my notebook and reproduced in the above paragraph, represents the last word on these two films and their relationship with environmentalism. I do hope those of you intrigued enough to have read this far will seek out Benning's films and see how your own reaction compares. (I know they've been programmed for the upcoming Vancouver International Film Festival, but am not aware of more Bay Area screenings scheduled) And if you disagree with my take on these films, or any others I've written about on this blog or in my occasional pieces elsewhere, let me know, either by e-mail or in the comments below.

Friday, July 29, 2005

The Mayor of Hell (no, not Gavin Newsom)


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I finally made it over to the Pacific Film Archive's Pre-Code film series last night. It was a double bill of Warner Brothers films originally released a week apart in June 1933, both of which have a lot to say about depression-era society: Heroes For Sale starring Richard Barthelmess, and The Mayor of Hell, starring James Cagney.

Edith Kramer was on hand to introduce the films, and she pointed out that the Warner studio of this era was famous for pulling storylines for its movies out of the latest newspapers. Thus their films gained a reputation for having a "real-life" feel to them, as opposed to (though I'm drifting from Kramer's point and over-generalizing) the dreamy confections of Paramount or the glamorous, middlebrow-oriented efforts of MGM. Sometimes, I feel, it makes Warner films seem a little unfocused, as if there was uncertainty about exactly how to combine the latest news stories. But one advantage is that the audience can get a running start at understanding a character if he or she seems to be just like someone we've read about in a newspaper; it's another weapon alongside the star persona and the stereotype in helping make characters quickly relatable so we can get on with the story. And though one might think it would make it harder for the films to hold up to modern scrutiny, there are so many pre-code Warner films that are perfectly enjoyable today, from Gold Diggers of 1933 (playing the PFA at 5:30 this Sunday) to Doctor X to Five Star Final to Night Nurse that the notion falls apart.

Though on a first pass neither Heroes for Sale nor the Mayor of Hell holds up quite as well as those four films, they both are well worth a look if you're interested in film and/or politics of 1933. Both films allow the viewer to dream about an alternative to the kind of democracy found in the "real world". Former legionnaire "Wild Bill" Wellman directed Heroes For Sale, which probably explains why the opening scenes of cowardice and betrayal on the battlefield of World War I feel particularly unglamorous. Richard Barthelmess (who six years later got to play the coward-makes-good role in Only Angels Have Wings) comes back from the war a morphine addict, thanks to a stay in a German P.O.W. hospital. He gets a job in a bank, thanks to the officer who took credit for his war heroism. But his addiction gets the better of him and he is forced to go into rehab, even though he knows the stigma of it will break his mother's heart. Upon release he makes a fresh start working at a laundry, where he helps introduce a labor-saving device that eventually loses him a job, along with most of the factory's employees. Wrongly accused of leading a full-scale worker's revolt, he lands in jail and eventually on the road as a tramp trying to make his way through the Great Depression.

It's a lot of plot to cram into 70-something minutes. I didn't even go into the family he starts with Loretta Young, the "female best friend" role played by Aline MacMahon, Robert Barrat's knee-jerk communist character and his sudden transformation, and of course the ending which brings the story full circle. It's too much to really process in one viewing really. But I did want to comment on a fascinating aspect of the Barthelmess character in the second half of the film: his place in the boxcars and under the bridges of the American countryside is not the result merely of bad luck or bad character; on the contrary, he takes a moral stance to join the downtrodden as a sort of penance for his previous ambitiousness. Thus we have, despite Robert Barrat's cartoonish portrayal of a socialist, a real socialist message at the heart of the film.

The Mayor of Hell is even richer with political significance, as well as with stereotyped characterizations. James Cagney's standard gangster character is plopped down in a reform school. The group of boys we follow into the school are portrayed in the spirit of Our Gang (at least one of the kids is played by a former member of the Hal Roach troupe, Allen "Farina" Hopkins), though just enough older and meaner to make for a drama rather than comedy. The headmaster (Dudley Digges) cuts corners, cooks the books, and intentionally breaks the spirit of his charges. When Cagney gets appointed Deputy Commissioner as a political favor, he expects it to be a source for more gravy until he falls in love with the school nurse (Madge Evans), whose copy of a book called "Fundamental Principles of Juvenile Government" inspires him to reform the school based on an idealized democratic model. The youths select their own mayor (the brainy kid), police chief (a brawny kid with an Edward G. Robinson affectation), and treasurer (the meek Jewish kid, of course). Everything works swimmingly until Cagney gets drawn into the world of his criminal connections in the city, and in his absence democracy breaks down into fascism followed by violent revolution.

Though the film has a scapegoat in the form of Mr. Thompson the headmaster, its clear that, just as the cringe-worthy stereotypes of the boys' parents pleading for their children at juvenile court shows the family to be ineffectual in the face of youth crime, so too is the state unequipped to deal with it. It is corrupt and over-authoritarian. The only hope for social change is pinned onto Cagney the benevolent gangster, a man who can fix the system by moving around its traditions and laws. Though it seems naive that the delinquents so neatly accept Cagney's program for change (though the film acknowledges the importance, and the difficulty, of having the youths' self-appointed leaders buy in first), it's clear that the film is suggesting this method of revitalizing American government and democracy. And it's fascinating that the impetus for reform comes through a woman. The message, of course, is that men are corrupt but some can become uncorrupted through love.

Whew! Wrote more on those than I'd expected to. But before I go, I have some good news and some bad news. First the bad news: I've been informed (by separate sources) that, not only has the Red Vic's Midnights For Maniacs series I mentioned in a previous entry been cancelled, but also that neither the Four Star nor the Presidio will host midnight movies this year either (counter to long-standing rumor). Looks like the last few chances for midnight movies this summer are all at the Bridge: Barbarella on July 30, Teen Witch August 6, Showgirls August 12-13 and the Underground Film Festival August 20.

The good news: the schedules for the Asian Film Festival to be held August 11-21 at the Four Star and the Presidio are floating around the city. Pick one up and let me know what you're excited to see!

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Catch the Malady


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Sitting at home all weekend trying to work the rest cure for my aching throat is also a good excuse to watch movies (and update the blog). Mostly I've been in Criterion-land. I watched The Lady Eve with Marion Keane's commentary track on. I haven't listened to that many DVD commentaries in my day, but this is the most delightful scholarly commentary I've heard. Keane seems about to burst with joy in every sentence she speaks. This is either due to her love of Preston Sturges, or her love of her own analytical insights. Either way its justified in my view, though I can sympathize with those who can't stand her kind of reading, in which every detail of the film can be interpreted as a comment on the nature of filmmaking. I guess I was never forced to sit through a bad version of this kind of analysis in film school so it feels like a breath of fresh air to me. I'd love to hear Keane's commentaries for Hitchcock films.

I also watched the last four episodes of Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage. I'd started out trying to ration them one a day, recreating the way they were originally broadcast, but after the third episode, Paula, I was too sucked in to help myself. Then I watched all the extras. These three-disc sets can be overwhelming!

I also popped in my Region 3 disc of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady in the hopes that watching some of it would inspire me to say something truly insightful about this incredible film before it plays at the Castro Theatre at 9PM on Monday. After having seen the film twice last November it feels like revisiting an old friend, but subtle things I missed before become clearer and clearer each time. Like the very first shot of the soldiers finding the dead body on patrol. It looks like a man, but they're handling it as if it were a wild beast. This is all obfuscated by Apichatpong's deceptively wavering camera which always frames the soldiers' faces and torsos in the center, their discovery never more than barely in the shot.

I only watched about 15 minutes before I decided I wanted to let the film surprise me all over again on the Castro's giant screen. I'm especially excited about letting the "pure cinema" second half of the film immerse me. Look for me in one of the first few rows. That said, so far I disagree with those who call the first half of the film comparatively weak. I think its full of fascinating, beautiful moments and that its contrasting style works in dialogue with the wordless second half. At least, that's what I thought last November. We'll see if I change my mind at all on Monday.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Joy of Life in Frisco


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So as I write this, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival is beginning at the Castro Theatre. Last year was the first time I attended the festival (also known as the Frameline festival to those of us who find the full name a mouthful), and I only saw one screening, Sokurov's Father and Son. I don't know if I'll make it to any of this year's screenings, but I can highly recommend three films that have already shown in town at other festivals and events.

Tomorrow at 1 PM is the single showing of Jenni Olson's The Joy of Life, which was probably my favorite film seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival last month. I had expected to review it in my upcoming report in Senses of Cinema, but the way that piece turned out, I could only squeeze in a brief mention. I think what really happened is that I froze up, like I do in the face of writing about many of my very favorite films. It felt impossible to convey the incredibly moving, vista-expanding, and, yes, life-affirming experience watching the Joy of Life was for me in mere words. Structurally, the film seems so simple: a series of static shots of Frisco locations devoid of human activity, as if to imagine what the city would be like if its inhabitants suddenly disappeared. Pair these images with a voiceover by Harriet "Harry" Dodge, first in the form of the diary of a butch dyke struggling with life and love, then a discussion of Frank Capra's Meet John Doe illustrating the difficulty even great filmmakers have had finding the right ending, and finally, the right ending: a simultaneously historically-founded and extremely-personal plea for the addition of a suicide barrier to the Golden Gate Bridge. Reading that description, I'm sure, isn't going to excite most movielovers. Doesn't it sound like it would be too political, or else too personal, too dry, too empty, too disjointed, too queer, too formalistic, too impressionistic, too weird, or too sad? It was none of those things for me, and I hope people aren't too scared off by descriptions of the film to go see it for themselves.

Perhaps a better way to convey my enthusiasm for the Joy of Life is simply to list a few of the particular things, little things, about it, that combined with an indescribable number of other things I haven't been able to identify yet to make me love it.

1) The shots start out mostly in the Eastern half of the city, streets that I'm largely unfamiliar with myself.

2) One shot shows the backside of the Castro Theatre, where tomorrow's screening is taking place. Actually, the first Meet John Doe reference is during the initial diary section of the film, as the speaker has just returned from a Castro screening of the film. Her date didn't like it, but she did.

3) Eventually, the spires of the bridge begin to creep into the shots. Very subtlely at first, as they sometimes can be spotted in glimpses on a particularly foggy day.

4) The section on Meet John Doe quotes from a review by the great and greatly underrated Otis Ferguson, who was Manny Farber's predecessor at the New Republic before going off to die in World War II. His insights on Hollywood in the 1930's and early 40's are the best of the period, and his writing style is just perfect.

5) Hooray for feature films shot in 16mm! They still exist!

6) I've always felt a real kinship to the Golden Gate Bridge, ever since learning it was opened to the public exactly 36 years before the day I was born. We're both Gemini according to occidental astrology and Oxen according to the Chinese. Living about a mile away for most of my life, seeing it every (clear) day from my favorite lunch spot in high school. The times I'd been confronted with the idea of a suicide barrier my knees would jerk to the common assumptions: "there's bigger things to worry about", or "it would be ugly" or "people would just commit suicide somewhere else." Watching this film convinced me otherwise. And it didn't feel like it was even trying to. Even though I guess it really was. But that doesn't even feel like a manipulation in retrospect, which is even more impressive, I think. I'm fully on board.

Well, that last one wasn't really a little thing I guess. But anyway, the festival's opening film (Côte d'Azur) is over by now and I haven't even gotten to my other two recommendations: Tropical Malady (playing the Castro 9 PM Monday) and Life in a Box (at the Roxie 5:45 on Saturday June 25th). Hopefully I'll write a bit about them before long.