Saturday, November 29, 2008

575 Castro St.

Perhaps you saw Milk in the Castro Theatre this weekend. Or perhaps you live in another city where it's playing, and saw the Castro Theatre in Milk.

Perhaps, like me, you were moved by the film and impressed by Sean Penn's performance. But perhaps you also wonder what it would have been like if a trace of Gus Van Sant's more experimental approach to real-life events (i.e. the Last Days, Elephant) had been evident in the film. Or perhaps you're curious to know if reciting history into a tape recorder to be played in the event of his assassination was a recreation of something Harvey Milk actually did, and not just a conventional biopic conceit. Or perhaps you simply want to spend more time looking at the recreation of the Castro Camera Store seen only relatively fleetingly in Van Sant's film.

If any of that is so, you'll probably want to watch a new short film called 575 Castro St.. In an introductory title card, director Jenni Olson explains that it looks back to the "light and motion studies" that were a key part of the early history of the Frameline film festival. You may be familiar with Olson as the director of the Joy of Life, one of my favorite films of 2005, and the subject of one of my first and favorite posts here at Hell on Frisco Bay.

I was able to watch 575 Castro St. on my computer by clicking here. If you watch it and like it, I highly recommend checking out the DVD of the Joy of Life as well.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Yes We Canyon

This weekend, I attended two out of three Frisco programs put together by experimental film writer/teacher/interviewer/programmer extraordinaire Scott MacDonald, in town for the first time since the publication of his book Canyon Cinema: the Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor. He proved to be, not unexpectedly, a very affable, approachable, and of course knowledgeable guest host at the 9th Street Independent Film Center where the legendary film distributor's Canyon Cinema's offices are currently located, and where the first two screenings were held.

The first screening was dedicated to the work of Canyon's two most instrumental filmmaker-founders, Bruce Baillie and Chick Strand. It's always a treat to see Baillie's Castro Street in a great 16mm print, and the other films were all new to me. In fact I'd never seen any Chick Strand film before now. MacDonald pointed out after the screening that though the two never collaborated on making a film together as they had collaborated so heavily on creating Canyon, some of their films seem as though they're speaking to each each other. For my part I noticed that Strand's Kristallnacht seemed to be connected in some ways to Baillie's To Parsifal- most obviously through the way each filmmaker photographs water. It was also interesting to see these homemade films speaking with the commercial cinema of their day as well; what does it mean that To Parsifal's images of seagulls are as crisp and full of movement as those found in Hitchcock's the Birds from the same year (1963)? Or that the man in the middle of a Mexican desert in Strand's 1967 Anselmo seems to beckon to Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West from a year later?

MacDonald said he divided the second and third programs along gender lines in order to show how the women Canyon filmmakers were in some ways responding to the mens' films. This made me particularly regret that prior commitments prevented me from attending the third set, which other than Gunvor Nelson's amazing Kirsa Nicholina and an encore screening of Kristallnacht was a completely unfamiliar slate: films by Abigail Child, Diane Kitchen, Anne Severson and Shelby Kennedy as well as others by Strand and Nelson that I have not seen. But I did get to watch the Y-Chromosome informed set, including more films by Baillie, rarely-seen works by Larry Jordan, Will Hindle, and Dominic Angerame, a pair of gut-busting films by Robert Nelson (my first exposure to his work), and two favorites by the man who initially sparked my interest in avant-garde film, Bruce Conner.

This was my first time seeing any of Conner's films at a public screenings since his death four and a half months ago. It was my fifth or sixth time seeing Cosmic Ray but it always feels like a new experience. This time I hung a bit on a lyric from the Ray Charles song used as the film's soundtrack, "See the girl with the red dress on." The fact that the singer cannot literally "see" a girl with a red dress on, or without one (like the go-go dancers in Cosmic Ray and Breakaway, the other Conner film on the evening's program) doesn't prevent him from singing about her with passion and enthusiasm. Neither can the origin of the disembodied voice be seen on the screen. The filmmaker controls the sensory experience of the audience, even from beyond the grave. This is basic stuff, I suppose, but it's rare to be reminded of it while watching such an exuberant, upbeat film.

Conner's films have become difficult to see of late. They're no longer part of the Canyon distribution catalog- he withdrew them some time before his death, for reasons that MacDonald writes about in the Canyon Cinema book. The highly-pixelated video shrink-downs of certain of his films that were easily accessed streaming in cyberspace not so many months back have also scurried into their hidey-holes-- more information on that in these fascinating posts. So, though it's probably too late in the day for anyone reading this to act on it, it's worth noting that Cosmic Ray will play in 16mm again tonight, at a fourth Scott MacDonald-hosted event this time across Frisco Bay at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. Most of the films on the program are repeated from one of the three Canyon screenings; for instance Kristallnacht, Castro Street and Robert Nelson's Oh Dem Watermelons.

And the PFA will also be tributing Conner with an evening solely dedicated to his films two weeks from tonight (December 9th). This is one worth purchasing advance tickets for as it spans a very diverse cross-section of his work: his debut a Movie, his longest film Crossroads, two rather rarely revived films Valse Triste and America is Waiting, and his last completed film Easter Morning.

Finally, Saturday, December 20th at Artists' Television Access, Other Cinema will remember Conner by including a clip from George Kuchar's Tempest in a Teapot, in which both filmmakers appear, as part of its program.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

List By Invitation

Thom Ryan has tagged me with the current "alphabet meme" (or as the Siren calls it, "list by invitation".) Unlike last time I'm not interested in following all of its rules, precisely (for example, I'm not going to pass on this one for various reasons). But I appreciate being tagged, and I thought it would be fun to list 26 favorite films, one from each letter of the alphabet.

In an attempt to avoid agonizing about balancing long-cherished favorites with new discoveries, I've limited myself only to films I've seen in theatres so far in 2008. Each title provoked a strong reaction (even if it was not one I took time to record in written form) and made me rethink cinema, or at least an important corner of cinema in one or many ways. Most of them are great, classics or perhaps someday-to-be classics. One of the titles is actually probably the worst film I saw all year, but I saw it under (for me) unique and memorable circumstances. I'd seen a few before on home viewing technology, but most I'd never seen before at all. I will list the venues and any special circumstances of the screening in question after the film title, director and year of the film's release. All are 35mm prints shown in local venues unless noted.

Abraham's Valley (Manoel de Oliveira, 1993) Pacific Film Archive, Oliveira centennial tribute, September 28.

Baghead (Jay & Mark Duplass, 2008) Park City, Utah: Yarrow Hotel, Sundance Film Festival press screening, January 24.

Carriage Trade (Warren Sonbert, 1971) SF Camerawork 16mm screening presented by kino21, May 15.

Distant Voices, Still Lives (Terence Davies, 1988) Pacific Film Archive, Terence Davies in person, February 21.

Eat, For This Is My Body (Michelange Quay, 2007) Park City, Utah: Holiday Village Cinema, Sundance Film Festival public screening with Quay in person, January 18.

the Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 2007) Kabuki Cinema, San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, March 16.

the Girl Can't Help It (Frank Tashlin, 1956) Pacific Film Archive, Tashlin retrospective, April 11.

Human Remains (Jay Rosenblatt, 1998) Roxie Cinema, digitally projected short presented at SF IndieFest, February 13.

I Was Born, But... (Yasujiro Ozu, 1932) California Theatre, San Jose, Cinequest festival with Jim Riggs at the organ, February 29. (had seen before on VHS)

Jujiro (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1928) Castro Theatre, San Francisco Silent Film Festival presentation with Stephen Horne at the piano and flute, July 13.

Kiriki, Japanese Acrobats (Segundo de Chomon, 1907) Balboa Theatre 82nd birthday celebration, digitally projected short with Frederick Hodges at the keyboard, February 27.

Lola Montès (Max Ophuls, 1955) Castro Theatre press screening, November 3. (had seen before on VHS)

My Sex Life... or How I Got Into an Argument (Arnaud Desplichin, 1996) Clay Theatre, French Cinema Now, October 11.

the Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955) Castro Theatre, tribute to United Artists, April 19. (had seen before on VHS)

Om Shanti Om (Farah Khan, 2007) Castro Theatre, 3rd i South Asian Film Festival screening, November 15.

Puzzle of a Downfall Child (Jerry Schaztburg, 1970) Pacific Film Archive presentation by Film on Film Foundation, September 28.

Quiet as Kept (Charles Burnett, 2007), Pacific Film Archive, digitally projected short, March 5.

the Romance of Astrea and Celadon (Eric Rohmer, 2007) Clay Theatre, San Francisco International Film Festival, May 7.

Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong, 2007) Letterman Digital Arts Theatre, presented by San Francisco Film Society, Lee in person, January 9.

They All Laughed (Peter Bogdanovich, 1981) Castro Theatre, Bogdanovich in-person tribute, March 9.

the Unknown (Tod Browning, 1927) Castro Theatre, San Francisco Silent Film Festival presentation with Stephen Horne at the piano and Guy Maddin reciting intertitles, July 12. (had seen before on DVD)

Velvet Hustler (Toshio Masuda, 1967) Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, co-presentation with Outcast Cinema, April 13.

Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (Pedro Costa, 2001) Pacific Film Archive, Costa in person, March 6.

X-Files: I Want to Believe (Chris Carter, 2008) Alajuela, Costa Rica: CCM International cinema, August 5.

Yours Truly (Osbert Parker, 2007) Salt Lake City, Utah: Broadway Centre Cinema, Sundance Film Festival public screening, digitally projected short with Parker in person, January 19.

04_066 (dextro, 2003) Kabuki Cinema, San Francisco International Film Festival, digitally projected short, May 1.

Though I'm not officially passing the meme invitation to anyone in particular, please feel free to respond with a list or a quip as a comment if you are so moved.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Adam Hartzell: Secret Sunshine

Still buried underneath projects, I don't have time to write much; just a reminder that Max Ophuls' Lola Montès opens at the Castro and elsewhere for a week- make sure to catch it at least once before it has to make room for the eagerly-anticipated Milk. Since the film deals so sharply with the way human memory (and collective memory a.k.a. history) colors and exaggerates the truth, it's crucial not to let this spectacle just roll through to the next town; an eventual DVD release is not likely to truly bring out the contrast between the pageantry and fakery on display, and the real emotions felt by the lead character, a contrast so often expressed visually by Ophuls.

Starting with tonight's screenings, there are eighteen more showings of Lola Montès at the Castro and more in other parts of Frisco Bay. But if I could point a cinephile to one single screening that I'd recommend most highly for the coming week, it would be last year's Korean drama Secret Sunshine, possibly the best new film I've seen all year. It has screened only here in Frisco early in the year, and it gets its encore appearance this Sunday courtesy of the San Francisco Korean American Film Festival. Adam Hartzell has more to say:

* * * * *

Traveling around the world while sneaking in film festivals taking place in South Korea between my work stints in Manila, I knew I was riding a wave that couldn’t last for very long, just like South Korean cinema was riding its own time-limited wave of popularity. Financial concerns along with family obligations and work commitments would eventually ground my cinematic globe-trotting. As a result, this South Korean film aficionado has been more incommunicado on the South Korean film scene. I went from assisting the folks at KIMA (Korean in Media Arts) in putting together their San Francisco Korean Film Festival in 2007 to having to fully relinquish responsibilities I had with the festival. Thankfully, the hard-working students and volunteers have done more than fine without me and have put together a lovely weekend of contemporary South Korean films for the cinephiles of San Francisco.

The festival opens and closes at The Richmond district’s 4 Star Theatre, whereas other screenings take place at the Coppola Theatre on the San Francisco State University campus or at the Academy of Art. Opening the festival this Friday is Director Lee Hae-young and Lee Hae-jun’s debut Like a Virgin, a film Darcy Paquet of says transcends coming of age sports movie constraints through its "detailed characterizations and intricate humor". But I’m here at Brian’s blog to add to the innumerable words of praise written about the closing film, Lee Chang-dong’s masterful Secret Sunshine.

Simply put, Secret Sunshine is about loss and suffering without the anchors of a religion/philosophy to impose a narration upon that loss. This is one of the rare South Korean films to explicitly show Korean Evangelical Christian traditions.
At the screening I attended presented by the San Francisco Film Society in early January of this year, Director Lee said he wasn’t intending to critique those traditions in this film. He is honest to that claim, staying away from
ridiculing, a la Bill Maher, the personal relationships with Jesus Christ that Evangelical traditions espouse. We merely watch a young mother attempt to deal with her loss without a sustained belief in supernatural interventions. We the godly audience are as helpless to offer succor as is the local gentleman who attempts to woo this un-woo-able soul at one of the most untouchable times of her life. Both Jeon Do-yeon and Song Kang-ho are excellent in their roles, and one can see easily why Jeon was selected as best actress by the 2007 Cannes jury for this role.

The film came to me at the right time in my life, since I was preparing for my own loss, my father’s death from cancer. Unrestrained by religion myself, I was working through accepting the loss of someone important to me without narratives frames already worked out for me ahead of time by a religious tradition. In this way, Secret Sunshine’s unrelenting turn face forward into the burning tragedy and unfairness of it all was much appreciated. Of course, I wouldn’t recommend this film for people who aren’t in a space where they can fathom the loss of a family member. But for those of you who approach cinema as your church alternative, experiencing the tactility of light from a knowable source, laying its hands upon your eyes as you sort through your own suffering, Secret Sunshine is the homily you come to the movies for. It is a film that will leave you raw, while still enabling you enough strength to reclaim the tough skin that helps you carry on with every new day outside the theater walls.