Monday, January 7, 2008

2007: I Only Have Two Eyes


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Since I've started paying attention, the repertory/revival offerings here on Frisco Bay have seemed just oh-so-slightly less inspiring every year. But I can never be sure if this perception holds due to a real, if gradual, decline in the number and diversity of local screenings of yesteryear's films, or if it can be better explained by my own increasing understanding of film history, and knowledge of what might be screening in other places but not here. I may complain that a place like the Paramount remains shamefully unutilized, or that the Stanford is becoming the only place in the area that plays not only the bona fide classics from the Golden Age of Hollywood, but also the somewhat more forgotten films from that era on a very regular basis. But who am I kidding? I still saw plenty of wonderful stuff in rep. houses this year, and the list of films I can't believe I actually let myself miss in 2007 is staggering.

That's why, when drawing up a set of year-end favorite repertory/revivals, I thought I'd invite other local bloggers and cinephiles to weigh in with their own picks as well. I saw a lot in 2007, but I didn't see everything I wanted to see, much less everything I didn't even realize I wanted to see. This compilation of lists from Frisco Bay filmgoers who generously agreed to participate is intended to remind everyone, including myself, of just how rich the options are around here for those who enjoy using the cinema screen as a portal to the past as much as they enjoy watching the newest releases.

I asked participants to list 5-10 favorite repertory/revival films seen in Frisco Bay theatres in 2007. Here's what these twenty eyes came up with, in order of submission:

Michael Guillén, dean of the Evening Class:
If not part of a genre-specific film festival, or San Francisco's annual Silent Film Festival, vintage and cult films still find their way to Bay Area screens, satisfying an ongoing hunger for rarely-screened gems. The value of our repertory theaters like the 4 Star, the Castro Theatre, and the Roxie Film Center and our archival film venues like the Pacific Film Archives and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Screening Room just can't be extolled enough. Here are 10 wonderful old movies I caught this year in neighborhood moviehouses.

1. Holy Mountain (La montaña sagrada, 1973); d. Alejandro Jodorowsky; Castro Theatre.

2. Kwaidan (1964); d. Masaki Kobayashi; Castro Theatre.

3. 2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her (2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle, 1967); d. Jean Luc Godard; Castro Theatre.

4. The Wild Pussycat (1968); d. Dimis Dadiras; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

5. Welcome Home Brother Charles (1975); d. Jamaa Fanaka; Roxie Film Center.

6. Spider Baby (1968) & Pit Stop (1969); d. Jack Hill; Roxie Film Center.

7. The Mad Fox (Koiya koi nasuna koi, 1962); d. Tomu Uchida; Pacific Film Archive.

8. A Flower In Hell (Jiokhwa, 1958); d. Sang-ok Shin; 4Star

9. Pyaasa (1957); d. Guru Dutt; Castro Theatre.

10. The World's Greatest Sinner (1962); d. Timothy Carey; Roxie Film Center
Michael Hawley, contributor to the Evening Class:
Spider Baby (1968) and Pitstop (1969), Dead Channels Festival, Roxie New College Film Center

In the wayward world I inhabit, this double-bill was THE Bay Area film revival event of 2007. Cult movie director Jack Hill spent a full Sunday afternoon sharing his personal 35mm prints of these two drive-in classics, graciously introducing each one and following up with illuminating Q&As. I walked away having learned all I’ll ever need to know about figure-8 stock car racing, not to mention an enthusiastic appreciation for the singular acting talents of Sid Haig. There were fewer than 50 people in the audience, for which San Francisco should hang its head in shame.

Yoshiwara: The Pleasure Quarter (1960) Tomu Uchida: Japanese Genre Master, Pacific Film Archive

Stunning, wide-screen color epic about a common whore’s rise to Grand Courtesanship, and the simultaneous plummet of the birthmark-cursed mill owner who finances it all. My favorite discovery of 2007.

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948), Noir City, Castro Theater

Besides having one of the great film titles of all time, this nasty slice of Noir featured a hunky Burt Lancaster being stripped to the waist, tied to a rack and flogged. The Castro audience roared its approval.

Sátántangó (1994) Pacific Film Archive

Bela Tarr’s infamous, seven-and-a-half hour Holy Grail of Cinephilia did not disappoint. Unfortunately, I slept through the entire build-up to the little-girl-abuses-a-kitty-cat scene, meaning that one day I’ll need to watch this all over again.

Pavement Butterfly (1929) San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, Castro Theater

Along with a stunning performance by the vastly under-appreciated Anna May Wong, this late-era silent boasts a vivid portrait of Parisian bohemia and Riviera café society at the tail end of The Jazz Age. A true Francophile’s wet dream.

The Godless Girl (1929) San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Castro Theater

Christian and atheist high school students go to war and wind up in reform school in this silent Cecil B. DeMille potboiler. Over the years I’ve seen Dennis James give some grand performances on the Castro’s Mighty Wurlitzer, but this one truly took the cake.

Look Back at England : The British New Wave, Pacific Film Archive

The half-dozen selections I saw from this 17-film retrospective proved to me that Britain’s cinema in the ‘60s was every bit as vital as the nouvelle vague happening south of the channel. (Look Back in Anger (1958), A Taste of Honey (1961), The Entertainer (1960), Billy Liar (1963), Darling (1965), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960))

Tearoom (1962) Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

William E. Jones’ provocative presentation and discussion of footage shot through a two-way mirror in a Mansfield, Ohio public restroom in the summer of 1962 (later employed to send 31 men to prison on sodomy convictions).

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) Castro Theater

This is Jean-Luc Godard in polemical, no-fun mode. But if I’m ever required to attend a costume party dressed as a movie character, I now have the perfect scheme – show up stark-raving nude wearing only a TWA or Pan Am flight bag over my head.

El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973) Castro Theater

Gorgeous new prints of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s insane psychedelic spectaculars, which I hadn’t seen in 30-some years (and won’t need to see again for another 30). This line from The Holy Mountain became my mantra for early 2007: "Your sacrifice completes my sanctuary of 10,000 testicles."
Adam Hartzell of, and a semi-regular contributor to this site:
5. Charlie Chaplin's LIMELIGHT (1952) and THE CIRCUS (1928) at the Castro
4. FRANZ FANON: BLACK SKIN, WHITE MASK (Isaac Julien, 1996, UK) at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
Packed house on Valentine's Day for an obscure highbrow film?! How excellent is that?!
3. CHILSU AND MANSU (Park Kwang-su, 1988, South Korea) at San Francisco State University
2. The Hong Sangsoo retrospective brought by the SF International Asian American Film Festival
1. KILLER OF SHEEP (Charles Burnett, 1977, USA) at the Castro
Ryland Walker Knight, creator of Vinyl is Heavy:
In chronological order, some rep touchstones of 2007. It's clear I go where I can, and where's easy, and that's usually one of three theatres; and of those three I frequent the one in my backyard more than either of the other two combined. I'd like to do better in 2008. I'll try, funds permitting. Luckily, the current PFA calendar is awesome and I want to go far too often.

1. Starting out yet another year with a sold-out screening of Pierrot le fou at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive was fun, despite my cough, as always. It's easy to forget what an experience it is to see that widescreen technicolor all big and bright.

2. Not sure if it counts but Killer of Sheep at the Castro, after a pretty delicious sushi dinner across the street with some good friends, kicked me in the butt real hard. I gasped three times. I may or may not have been moved to tears.

3. The two-day Out 1: Noli me tangre event at the PFA was the single greatest thing I did not write about this year. Still don't know what to throw down about it. May have a better idea after seeing Out 1: Spectre at the PFA in February.

4. Love Streams at the Yerba Buena Screening Room comes in close. I never really understood Cassavetes until seeing this picture, I don't think. Or I'd forgotten the joy he possessed and projected and lived. "I've got to get that goat!"

5. I always enjoy a good 70mm exhibition of 2001 at the Castro. Best movie ever? I always think so upon exiting. (The also-grand Lawrence of Arabia is more tiring than joyful these days.)

6. The last great rep film I saw was Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. I dozed twice, yes, but it sure is *something*. It lives up to Manny Farber's essay, "Kitchen Without Kitsch." Or, Farber's essay lives up to the film, as I experienced the words before the pictures.

7. The series I wish school hadn't prevented me from catching was the "Battle of the Andersons" that the Castro programmed. I would have loved to have seen The Life Aquatic and Punch-Drunk Love on the same screen on the same night.
Marisa Vela, painter and extremely tasteful filmgoer:
Colossal Youth, Kabuki, SF International Film Festival
Brand Upon The Brain!, Castro, SF International Film Festival
Cottage On Dartmoor, Silent Film festival
Wicked Woman, Noir City
Barbara Stanwyck Centennial -- There's Always Tomorrow, PFA at the Castro
Ingmar Bergman series -- Hour Of The Wolf, The Rite, PFA at the Castro
Silent Light, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
Sátántangó, PFA
Aelita Queen Of Mars, PFA
Joseph Cornell Film Series, SFMoMA
Agua, Kabuki, SF International Film Festival
The World's Greatest Sinner, Film On Film Foundation at the Roxie

A trip to the Niles Essanay Film Center

Sad moment: Listening to audience members laughing loudly through a screening of Mouchette (The Jeff Wall series at MoMA was great, though).
shahn, the masterful mixologist at six martinis and the seventh art:
a cottage on dartmoor - castro theatre
the moment i realized i was learning forward on my seat to get closer to the screen, i glanced to my left to find that most people sitting in my row were also on the edge of their seats.

morocco -stanford theatre
the moment that i was not only sobbing audibly but ready to take off my shoes and walk out of the theatre after gary cooper.

noir city film festival -castro theatre
the moment when i was volunteering at the booze table and found out whiskey and film noir go really, really well together. i can't recall which film i saw but it was very enjoyable.

joseph cornell: films -sfmoma
the moment i found out that while my idol brakhage's film wonder ring was stupendous, cornell's version gnir rednow was so so so much better.

kevin brownlow -pacific film archive
when during the q&a some old blowhard answered his own question in order to show off, the moment kevin brownlow cut him off in the most respectful and informed way possible- proving that studying old films for years can provide one with tools of knowledge powerful enough to knock the wind out of an old blowhard.

also enjoyed:
footlight parade at stanford
pyaasa at castro
swing time at sfmoma
reckless moment at pfa
eraserhead at castro
Ben Armington, self-described "unrepentant film fanatic and professional explainer of rush lines":
1. Sátántangó (Pacific Film Archive)
2. Syndromes & a Century (Yerba Buena Center for the Arts)
3. Massacre at Central High (Castro)
4. The Mother & the Whore (SF MOMA)
5. Grin without a Cat (Artists' Television Access)
6. Crimes of the Future w/ Spoonbender 1.1.1 (Roxie)
7. Short films by Glenn Wait and David Enos, + music performances by Late Young and the Cones (ATA)
8. Scarlet Street (Castro) / La Chienne (SFMoMA)
9. Beggars of Life (Castro)
10. Stalker (PFA)
I know Beggars of Life is technically a festival film and Syndromes & a Century theoretically had a theatrical release in urbane New York City, but I felt they both deserved a spot because of how much enjoyment they brought me in comparison to other rep stuff.

Lincoln Spector of the terrific resource Bayflicks, with a somewhat more East-Bay-centric perspective than most of the other participants here:
Rear Window at the Cerrito (January)
I own this picture (my favorite Hitchcock) on DVD, so watching it in 35mm with an enthusiastic audience was a real reminder of how movies should be seen. Nothing can replace the thrill of watching a movie while surrounded by hundreds of your fellow homo sapiens.

Kevin Brownlow's Talk at the Pacific Film Archive (April)
A great overview of the silent era presented by the world's greatest authority on the subject. The clips presented, with accompaniment by Judith Rosenberg, included one certified masterpiece: Buster Keaton's two-reel One Week.

RiffTrax Presentation of Over the Top at the Rafael (May)
Okay, it was a lousy movie, but that was the point. And it was presented off of a DVD, but so what--it's a lousy movie. The running commentary by three Mystery Science 3000 alumni was hilarious, and once again, the audience made it better.

Beggars of Life at the Castro (July)
I caught several films at the San Francisco Silent film Festival, but but this tramp drama starring Wallace Beery and Louise Brooks outdid them all. So did the Mont Alto Orchestra in accompaniment. Another plus of the festival: Meeting Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies.

Patton at the Castro (September)
Beautiful, 70mm print of the last great big-format roadshow production. As drama, Patton works even on the small screen. But sitting in the Castro's front row, watching the amazing clarity of a 70mm print made from a 65mm negative, and it's a whole other--and much better--experience.

Thrillville at the Cerrito (October)
I finally made it to a Thrillville event (semi-regular occurances at the Parkway and Cerrito). Will, Monica, Mr. Lobo, and Queen of Trash put on a great live show, as did the band Project Pimento. Mint-condition 35mm prints of two mediocre horror movies made it a great night.

Dr. Zhivago at the Cerrito (November)
I've always liked more than loved Lean's follow-up to Lawrence of Arabia (admittedly a hard act to follow), but finally seeing Zhivago on the big screen helped me finally get this picture. I loved it.

Flesh and the Devil at the Castro (December)
Part of the Silent Film Festival's winter program. Christel Schmidt of The Library of Congress introduced the feature, and the always amazing Dennis James accompanied it on the Wurlitzer. It's always nice to be reminded just how hot a love scene can be, even if it was shot more than 80 years ago.
Robert Davis, who never need apologize for his Errata:
Killer of Sheep, Castro/Red Vic
Perhaps the best film I saw in 2007, period, a film of such simple/complex beauty that it overcomes any number of problems with projection, sound, or delayed distribution. Stunning. I saw it twice.

L'eclisse / Antonioni series, PFA
The Antonioni series at the PFA included both a favorite screening and a big disappointment. The spell of L'eclisse lingers -- the sound of the fan blowing Monica Vitti's hair -- but, surprisingly, so does the shock of showing up for Red Desert and seeing a mob of people crowding the box office. I didn't get in, but I left with a smile anyway, because droves of people had chosen to spend the evening with Antonioni's brown coats and red splashes. Five months later, he was gone.

Sátántangó, PFA
The DVD has been delayed, and I can only assume it's because they can't figure out how to fit it into the box. It's seven and a half hours of Bela Tarr whose ideas do not slip easily into thin disks. The girl with the cat. The man with the binoculars. The drunken dance drunken dance drunken dance. Thankfully, we have the PFA.

Land Without Bread, SFMOMA
Although it was bookended by two lesser films projected on DVD, the 16mm screening of Land Without Bread at SFMOMA was the most unusual film-audience interaction by whose gale-force gusts I had the pleasure of being pummeled. Seven decades after he made the short, Buñuel proved again that he was a master of provoking collective discomfort, a maestro who conducted with a red hot poker.

Kiarostami series, PFA
The PFA's extensive Kiarostami retrospective was not only a great chance to catch up with some of his least screened films but also a sad reminder of how exhibition has changed in the last decade: Homework was screened in a bowdlerized version and practically no one (including the staffs at the PFA and NYC's MOMA) noticed.

Stalker, PFA
Now that rare, small, and foreign films are readily available on DVD, I find that my favorite public screenings are of films that mirror the large, patient, hypnotic dreams of their creators, the ones that demand rapt attention. In the digital age, the world may be the cinephile's oyster, but I note that pearls are among the tiniest known orbs. Don't stir them with peas! They could easily be swallowed! Not so, Tarkovsky!

Threnody/Triste, SF Camerawork
Sometimes you want a guy to put a white rectangle on the wall, set up some folding chairs, and project a couple of silent meditations. Then you want the guy to stand up afterward and tell you about using celluloid to create objects, not just representations of something else, and you want him to be humble and mind-blowing at the same damn time. You want Dorsky, Nathaniel, at SF Camerawork. Sometimes called "Nick."

Tropical Malady, PFA (shot-by-shot)
Or sometimes you want a guy to sit down with one of his signature films and talk about each shot, stopping to answer questions along the way. Not always. Not just anybody. But if it's Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who gave me a whole new way to see Tropical Malady, name the time and the place. Can we get an encore with Syndromes and a Century, my favorite new film of 2007?

Fires on the Plain, PFA
The 50 years of Janus series played at both the PFA and the Castro, and I might have put Knife in the Water on this list except that I saw Fires on the Plain when the PFA brought it back. Ichikawa has such stunning control of his material that he pulls against every easy reaction to his satirical nightmare.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, PFA
Rarely screened -- and even more rarely screened with such reverence -- Chantal Akerman's searing deconstruction of a woman's daily routine set the filmmaker on a career-spanning course of spatial examination, and it may even have prefigured the mise en scène of Hou Hsiao-hsien. Like Tarr and Tarkovsky and Antonioni, her confidence in the medium allows the film's slow and steady accumulation of ideas to end with an inevitable smack that simply would not thwack the way it should were it seen at home.

And finally, my own top choices for the year. I will admit that I didn't draw this up until after these submissions started coming in, so I may well have been influenced by others' choices. I was probably particularly merciless to screenings mentioned by someone else, as well as to films I'd seen before, or to those shown in a festival I volunteered for (which explains the lack of Silent Film Festival selections). But here's my own ten, in chronological order of viewing:

Sátántangó at the Pacific Film Archive, February. The act of watching it felt something like a rite-of-passage into a new phase of cinephilia. That endlessly-circling track over the villagers' faces is just one of many of this film's 172 shots I'll never forget.

the Lady Vanishes at the Castro, February. I'd never seen this British Hitchcock before, and it was all its reputation implied and more. Works to watchmaker's perfection on every level imaginable: as narrative, as art, as political commentary, etc.

Tropical Malady, shown as part of an April residency for Apichatpong Weerasethakul at the Pacific Film Archive; the film was shown in 35mm one day and then on DVD the next, with director Apichatpong behind a microphone performing an extemporaneous live commentary track and answering audience questions throughout the film. (By the way, this method of viewing will be attempted again when the PFA brings Terence Davies to talk about Distant Voices, Still Lives next month.)

Bruce Baillie's four-part epic of color and sound, shadow and "silence", Quick Billy, brought to Artists' Television Access by kino21 in April.

Killer of Sheep at the Castro in May. I also saw it improperly projected at a press screening, not held at the Castro. It was great both times.

The Film on Film Foundation's May presentation of Isadore Isou's masterpiece of cinematic insurgency Venom & Eternity, backed with Christopher Maclaine's The End at the Roxie. The latter film, shot in a Frisco very different from the one I was born in twenty years later, astonished me with its familiarity, its prophecy, its radicalism and its despair.

There was something about seeing the soft-core pornographic drive-in movie Revenge of the Cheerleaders as a MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS screening at the Castro in July. It's stuck with me. I still am trying to reconcile how such a lowbrow film could feel so thrillingly unformulaic even when mixing and matching the expected elements of sex, drugs, dancing and food fights. Talk about irrational exuberance.

The Abbas Kiarostami films shown at the Pacific Film Archive in July and August. I only saw a half-dozen of the features and a few of the shorts, but that still marked my deepest delve into a single retrospective in 2007. To finally see landmarks like Where is the Friend's Home and Close-Up for the first time, as well as early rarities like the Wedding Suit, nurtured me through several months of dread that my government might extend its saber's reach to Iran.

I had never seen Olivier Assayas' Irma Vep before and was delighted to confirm at the PFA in October that it's precisely the masterpiece of syncretism everyone had suggested it was. Having the director there in person was icing on the cake, and I only wish I'd been able to come back for more slices during his residency. (Note: Irma Vep plays the PFA again February 29th to wrap up a Jean-Pierre Léaud series.)

An SF Cinematheque presentation of 1940s-50s independent short films by Frisco filmmakers at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in November. The program included wonderful work by luminaries such as Sidney Peterson and Stan Brakhage, but my very favorite films on the program were a pair made by Jane Conger Belson: Odds and Ends and particularly Logos, a two-minute scintillation of cut-out animation backed by a vanguard electronic score by Henry Jacobs.

Anyone else have favorite experiences seeing old films in movie houses in 2007?