Saturday, June 18, 2005

Catch the Malady


* * * * *

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


* * * * *

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.