Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Monsieur Hulot after the Holidays

The year's film festivals are now all in the rear-view mirror. This weekend marked the last of the 2009 film programming at Yerba Buena Center For the Arts and the Pacific Film Archive. Even the Castro Theatre turns its back on repertory for a few weeks after the end of its Alfred Hitchcock series this Wednesday. Yes, Frisco Bay's cinema screens are clearing room for moviegoers to focus on the year-end releases which angle for box office boosts from critical top ten lists and nominations from awards-giving bodies. If not for exceptions like the booking of a new print of Bicycle Thieves at the Roxie, Christmas-themed programming at the Stanford and San Jose's California Theatre, and the traditional booking of Baraka at the Red Vic, local cinema addicts would have no other option but to see a 2009 commercial release if they want to attend a movie. Of the new ones available, I highly recommend Frederick Wiseman's ballet documentary La Danse, perhaps his most musical film and thus one of his most accessible. It plays the Rafael and the Balboa and the Elmwood for a few more days before moving to the Little Roxie. Claire Denis's haunting 35 Shots of Rum is making its long-awaited return to Frisco Bay this week at the Lumiere and the Shattuck. And much to my surprise, I also liked Clint Eastwood's Invictus quite a bit; though not a perfect movie it has some truly remarkable scenes, and a smart self-awareness of both the facilities and the limitations of mass entertainment to motivate social change.

In January, Frisco Bay repertory will gear up again. Arguably the centerpiece of early 2010 is the newly-struck print of Jacques Tati's international breakthrough Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot a.k.a. Mr. Hulot's Holiday, which will appear at no fewer than four venues around the bay in the next couple of months. First, on January 14th, it kicks off the new semester at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, and the complete Tati retrospective it's holding (other PFA attractions in January and February include but are not limited to tributes to Val Lewton and the early work of Frank Capra, the annual African Film Festival, and screenings of films by Jean-Luc Godard, Yasujiro Ozu, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and Nathaniel Dorsky.) From January 15-21 Mr. Hulot's Holiday spends an entire week at the North Bay's Rafael Film Center (which has also announced its For Your Consideration series of international submissions for the Foreign Language Film Academy Award). Then on January 28th it stops at YBCA, which is also hosting the touring Tati retrospective, before taking up a two-day residence at the Red Vic on February 3rd and 4th.

The PFA and YBCA Tati retrospectives are particularly exciting: not only chances to see Mr. Hulot's Holiday in a restored print with an audience to laugh along with, but a chance to contextualize the 1953 film into this woefully misremembered filmmaker's career. If Tati is thought of by modern cinema audiences at all, he is too frequently considered an anachronistic kindred to silent-era clowns like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Max Linder. It's true that like these gentlemen he developed his comedy in music halls before unleashing it on cinema screens, but unlike them his films exhibit a near-revolutionary understanding of the comedic potential of film sound. Sound effects, snatches of dialogue, and deceptively relaxing musical scores play as much a role in his peculiar brand of humor as do his physical gags and his democratic approach to mise-en-scene. Though my personal favorite of his films is Playtime (which plays the PFA Jan. 15 & 23, and the YBCA Feb. 11), it is Mr. Hulot's Holiday which introduced the character of Monsieur Hulot, and is likely the purest distillation of Tati's aesthetic. It's a film in tune with the elements: wind, water, sand, etc. The director gets great comic mileage out of the most seemingly insignificant things, like the sound a door makes when opening and closing, or a tennis swing, or the tide rolling onto the shore.

But don't take my word for it. Who better to talk about a French filmmaker than the most influential French film critic, André Bazin? Thankfully, his essay on Tati and Mr. Hulot's Holiday has been translated into English by Bert Cardullo and was published at Bright Lights Film Journal with a substantial introduction by Cardullo earlier this year.

The Evening Class has compiled the PFA and YBCA programs into one handy list. Though both venues will showcase shorts Tati directed and/or starred in as well as his features, and both include all four of the films featuring Tati's Hulot character as well as the barely-seen color version of his first feature Jour De Fete, only the PFA will be screening the director's swan song Parade. YBCA screened the latter twice earlier this month, and I attended one of the showings, never having seen Parade before. This final, post-Hulot work was shot on both film and video, showing off the advantages of both formats as they existed in 1974. It's a capturing of a circus performance filled with jugglers, animal acts, magicians and musicians, all of them doubling as clowns. Though in essence a non-narrative performance film, there are multiple micro-narratives to be found in Parade, many of them stemming out of the broken barriers between circus performers and audience members that Tati and his troupe have instigated. We follow one towheaded child from apparent boredom to full participation when he is invited to ride a mule around the circus ring, showing up animal-handling skills of the other audience volunteers attempting the task. It's one of many delights packed into this relatively brief, made-for-television feature.

The Criterion Collection DVDs of Mr. Hulot's Holiday and Mon Oncle feature introductions by a comic director of another sort, Terry Jones of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Jones directed, or co-directed with Terry Gilliam, each of the Pythons' feature films. He will be in town early next year as well, appearing at the Castro Theatre January 21st for a double feature of Monty Python and The Holy Grail and The Life of Brian as part of the SF Sketchfest film programs. (Other Sketchfest screenings include UHF with "Weird Al" Yankovic in attendance, Brain Candy with Dave Foley in attendance, Waiting For Guffman with Fred Willard in attendance, two screenings celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Marx Brothers' Animal Crackers, and a live heckling of Danger On Tiki Island from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 alums at the Castro.) I'm sure the Castro will have a massive turnout of generations of Monty Python fans eager to see the Knights Who Say 'Ni' and the Peoples' Front Of Judea on the largest possible screen, with one of the chief collaborators on hand with his perspectives. Wouldn't it be great if some who have never experienced a film by one of his chief comedic influences stepped outside the zone of 'comfort cinema' to enjoy the Tati screenings on offer as well?

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Cardinal

Of the countless functions of cinema, perhaps one of the most suited to the medium is "camera as peephole." The world is filled with closed-off spaces, from the bedroom to the boardroom, which you or I cannot simply enter and experience for ourselves inobtrusively. Writers and visual artists who have access to a cloistered locale can report on their experiences behind socially-constructed veils, but they act as a filter quite different from a camera and audio recorder working in tandem. Likewise, so-called "fiction" filmmaking generally employs a filter distinct from the documentary mode, but even a well-dressed Hollywood set populated by actors can simulate for an audience the look and feel of an otherwise-private sphere they could otherwise never expect to experience at all.

Herein lies the everlasting appeal of the confessional in cinema to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Films like Forbidden Games, the Godfather Hamlet and countless others memorably recreate this oh-so-priviliged space, exploiting its dramatic (or comedic) potential while reminding us that cinema is as much about the unseen (often, the priest on the other side of the wall is heard but never shown) as the seen. Otto Preminger's 1963 The Cardinal uses a confession booth as a key location, but more notably the film as a whole serves as a sort of peephole onto the inner workings of the Catholic Church. Preminger, coming off the popular success of the religious-themed epic Exodus, was allowed an unprecedented amount of access to the Vatican City for this adaptation of the 1950 bestselling novel by Henry Morton Robinson. None other than Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, was the liaison between the Church and the production.

The Cardinal is titled for its central character Stephen Fermoyle, a priest played by Tom Tryon who acquired the nickname as a youth, we're told, as he'd been preordained to go into the clergy since his birth into Boston's Irish Catholic community. An academic at heart, he's seemingly more comfortable in an ivory tower delving into his faith's distant history than out in the world helping parishioners live through history-in-action. The interwar setting of the film provides opportunities for Fermoyle to butt up against twentieth-century history, both its events and its changing social attitudes. Tryon plays him as a weak personality who employs strict Catholic doctrine as something of a surrogate spine, guiding his hard decisions no matter the personal cost.

The film is structured as a series of moral tests for Tryon's priest, and for the Catholic Church in general. Whether he (and Catholicism) passes or fails these tests will probably depend on your viewpoint on controversial subjects, though one might guess Preminger's own stances even if he's, on the whole, even-handed in his presentation. Fermoyle confronts bigotry, abortion, his family's desires for him to go against his professed beliefs, and his own ambition. He even turns away from the church for an extended sequence in Vienna, though because of a flashback-framing device, we know that he will eventually return to Rome with honor; all we don't know is just how.
"How" is the fundamental question in successful narrative, and in The Cardinal. Chris Fujiwara, in his Preminger biography the World and Its Double, argues that if The Cardinal "is one of Preminger's greatest films, it is also, inevitably, one of his most underappreciated, since the same things that make it great also make it resist appreciation." Another biographer, Foster Hirsch, introducing a screening at the Film Forum in New York City, calls it "very square" in that it deals with the inner workings of church hierarchy, an unfashionable subject in 1963 or now. But he also considers it something of a litmus test for Preminger affinity; "if you like the film, you like Preminger. If it doesn't get to you, and it won't get to all of you, Preminger is not for you."

I'm not sure if Hirsch's challenge is foolproof; I did like the Cardinal, but to be honest it's the first of his films that has truly captured my fascination. Perhaps it's the circumstances of viewing; seeing the Panavision print secured by the Film On Film Foundation projected on a large screen at a press preview a few weeks ago was naturally more involving than viewing even the likes of Laura or Anatomy of a Murder on videocassette years ago. Perhaps I've just learned better how to view such an auteur-centric film over the years.

If so, it's not small part in thanks to reading books like Film As Film, written by V. F. Perkins in 1972. (And to Girish Shambu for instigating me to read it!) The book is an eye-opening investigation of the building blocks of narrative cinema, and though Perkins draws examples from across the range of classic cinema, from Griffith and Eisenstein to Nicholas Ray and Michaelangelo Antonioni, no director save Alfred Hitchcock gets more citations in the index than Otto Preminger. Two passages single out scenes from The Cardinal. One (page 95-6) takes the instance of a bell ringing upon Fermoyle's arrival in a small, impoverished Massachusetts parish as an example of the richness in meaning available through the use of sound in cinema. The other (page 87-88) contrasts the aptly motivated moving camera in a shot of Fermoyle and Anne-Marie (played by Romy Schneider) cycling through the Austrian countryside against camera movements he considers unmotivated in John Frankenheimer's the Train. Perkins writes of the shot: "Preminger's image does not cease to offer information in order to impose a mood or meaning. Instead the viewpoint is used to provoke, out of all the possible responses to the action, the ones most relevant to the film's design." As I interpret him, he's arguing on a micro leveal that the Cardinal at a macro level is a fully-controlled work from a master who knows exactly the effects he wants to achieve with each shot. Even what is arguably an episodic or unfocused source novel has been tamed and assimilated into Preminger's cinematic worldview.

I am excited to view more Preminger films in the retrospective currently running at the Pacific Film Archive through a lens informed by reading Fujiwara and Perkins, and by my experience viewing and considering The Cardinal. The series ends December 20th with a pairing of two highly-regarded works, Bonjour Tristesse and Bunny Lake Is Missing. In the meantime, a rare chance to see the Cardinal, which was left off the official PFA Preminger program, will occur this Sunday, December 6th at that venue, thanks to the Film On Film Foundation's rental of the theatre. It occurs just after screenings of Heddy Honigmann's the Underground Orchestra and Roberto Rossellini's masterful Voyage In Italy; Frisco Bay cinephiles will need airtight excuses not to be in Berkeley that day!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Lost Patrol (Boris Karloff Blogathon)

The Boris Karloff Blogathon has been running all week over at the superb Frankensteinia blog captained by Montréal cartoon artist and Frankenstein expert Pierre Fournier. I haven't participated in one of these internet-wide flurries of topic-focused writing in quite a while, but I've had great fun participating in them in the past, and even hosted one or two of them myself. I'm essentially too late to join the Karloff party, but the event has at least inspired me to "rescue" a three-and-a-half year old piece I wrote for the now defunct Cinemarati site. That site is now long gone, but individual pieces are still housed at archive.org a.k.a. the wayback machine. Though three and a half years seems like a lot, especially in internet time, I feel like this particular piece, on John Ford's the Lost Patrol holds up despite a few sentences with references to 2006 activities (I tinkered a bit with the last paragraph but otherwise left the piece unedited).

The Lost Patrol doesn't feature Karloff in a starring role, but he plays a very memorable part in the ensemble. I saw the film when the Balboa Theatre ran a three-week series entitled "As Sure As My Name Is Boris Karloff" (be sure to click that link for some great Karloff interview excerpts). It played on a double-bill with the Mask of Fu Manchu and Sara Karloff was on hand to speak about the films and show photographs of her father on Hollywood sets. This terrific series was unfortunately one of the last before the Balboa reverted from a repertory venue to a second-run and occasionally first-run theatre. (Though they still have the odd special event, like Thrillville's presentation of Beach Blanket Bingo next Valentine's Day, and I'm very excited to visit the theatre for this Friday's release of the newest Frederick Wiseman documentary La Danse: the Paris Opera Ballet.)

I also wrote about the Karloff films programmed in this post here at Hell On Frisco Bay. Let us now journey back in time to June 9, 2006, when I originally posted the following review of the Lost Patrol...

* * * * *

My neighborhood theatre is running a huge Boris Karloff retrospective right now, and the other night I saw a rare print of this early John Ford picture, his first film made for RKO a year before he made the film for which he'd win his first Oscar, The Informer I haven't seen very much of Ford's 1930s work yet, but The Lost Patrol fits right in with what I expect from one of his films from the 40s or 50s. It's not simply another action film; indeed there's long stretches without much real action at all. What it does contain is Ford's common theme of men removed from their homes, trying to survive and find a purpose to their lives. Varied class and ethnic backgrounds, conflicting philosophies, and a Ford-style critique of the problems of the military are also quite evident.

The film is structured something like a modern-day slasher movie. No time is wasted on the set-up: a group of soldiers in the Mesopotamian desert lose their commanding officer to a sniper's rifle and find themselves lost, without a known mission or a convenient way out of their predicament. After a hasty burial in the sand, sturdy Victor McLaglen, a ubiquitous Ford presence, leads the patrol to an abandoned oasis, where the men bicker amongst themselves as they get picked off by their unseen adversaries one by one. Among the ranks are a poetry-minded enlistee played by Reginald Denny, and most memorably, Karloff as the one man in the group who never lacks for a purpose: he is a religious extremist who remembers Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) as the original site of the Garden of Eden and wants to save the souls of his fellow soldiers, though they're having none of it. The wildly gesticulating fanaticism of Karloff's character at first seems out of place in Ford's universe. He's not just an eccentric like Hank Worden's Mose Harper in The Searchers, but an increasingly threatening presence, imbued with the echoes of his usual boogeyman characters. As the intensity of his zealotry rises by orders of magnitude while his dwindling compatriots become ever more hopeless and "lost", Karloff seems less and less like a character out of another movie, and more like a foreshadowing of the insanity lying in wait for each soldier just over the next dune. The end of the film feels almost like a feverish hallucination for the last remaining soldier, who is reduced to an almost parodically macho pose.

The theatre operator mentioned the particular topicality of the film when introducing it, and I have to agree. Certainly any good film can springboard a myriad of interpretations, but in 2006 [and, sad to say, 2009] a dominant one surely is to see the Lost Patrol as an eerie premonition of this country's current situation in Iraq. The setting, the matter-of-fact hopelessness of the soldiers' situation, the religious element to the conflict, and many other little surprises can't help but reinforce the connection. And anyone with a DVD player can take a look for themselves, as the film was just this week released for the first time on home video along with four other Ford films: the Informer, Mary of Scotland, Sergeant Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Disney Before Mickey (and more)

The San Francisco Film Society has just put on its 4th Annual S.F. International Animation Festival as part of its fall season of mini-festivals of various themes. There was French Cinema Now and Taiwan Film Days before it, and now it's in the midst of its long-standing New Italian Cinema series, which closes Sunday with Marco Bellocchio's Vincere. Coming up is the first winter presentation of KinoTek, in recent years a mainstay of the Film Society's biggest annual showcase, the San Francisco International Film Festival. 2009's KinoTek programs were cut back at the SFIFF this past Spring, so the upcoming December 12-13 event, a "multimedia dance, theater and projected video performance" by Catherine Galasso entitled Lightning Never Strikes the Same Place Twice, is welcome.

This year's Animation Festival presented Frisco Bay premieres of a couple of anticipated theatrical releases, Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox (opening later this month) and Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar's a Town Called Panic, coming to Landmark Theatres in January. It also screened numerous shorts and features with more uncertain futures in local theatrical venues. I caught a pair of programs: the opening night celebration, in which local avant-garde animation master Lawrence Jordan participated by showing his 1960s film Ein Traum Der Liebenden while improvising the frame rate to sync with the live musical accompaniment by Pale Hoarse, and a matinee program of silent-era Disney shorts at the Embarcadero.

Many Disney fans have only in recent years started to fully appreciate the importance of the studio's pre-Mickey Mouse creative output to the foundation of the most ubiquitous animation company of all-time. From 1923 through 1927, Disney's premier character was not a cartoon at all, but a little girl named Alice (not to be confused with the Lewis Carroll creation, though her first film played on the association in its title Alice's Wonderland.) A live-action girl placed in a cartoon world, she was played by four different young actresses over the years, starting with 4-year-old Virginia Davis. Seven of the Alice Comedies, as they are often called, have been collected on a DVD in the Walt Disney Treasures collections of shorts. Unfortunately, though there were indications that the line-up for the festival had not been locked down until shortly before the screening, as it turns out the program for this matinee was comprised entirely of the seven shorts on the DVD. I suspect the digital projection was in fact sourced from the DVD as well, as it the image quality was a far cry from the last hi-definition digital presentation I viewed at the Embarcadero several weeks ago, Passing Strange. It's more than the difference between a digitally-shot feature from 2009 and celluloid creations from over eighty years ago; there were tell-tale horizontal lines in the image that had nothing to do with film's tendency to degrade and everything to do with resolution of the digital image.

Despite the disappointing picture quality of the presentation, the event was still enjoyable. The selections from the DVD showcase each of the four Alice actresses, though the majority feature Davis, including Alice's Wonderland, Alice's Wild West Show, and Alice Gets In Dutch. One film, Alice in the Jungle, cobbled together footage shot of her for previous films to create an entry in the series completed well after her contract with Disney had ended. Showing the films in chronological order, with in-person commentary from Disney researchers Russell Merritt and J.B Kaufman (some of it during the film, quasi-benshi-like), gave a real sense of how the Alice films progressed stylistically over the years. The earlier cartoons feature extensive live-action prologues before whisking Davis into the animated universe, for example, while the later films dispense with this conceit, focusing more on pure animation. They even go so far as to relegate Alice to a supporting role in some instances, while the antics of a Felix-esque cat named Julius takes center stage. Also Felix-esque is the tendency toward increased elasticity and mutability of objects and body parts as the shorts progressed chronologically. The biggest laugh of the program was found in Alice Gets In Dutch, when Julius inhales some "Cheyenne Pepper" and sneezes his face right off, onto the floor.

The most thematically fascinating of the films was one I hadn't watched before: Alice's Egg Plant, which features Alice (played by Dawn O'Day) and Julius as management of a chicken farm under Bolshievik revolt. In the film, striking chickens are shown to be under the influence of a Russian agent, purely a caricature of Communism. When a pair of roosters begin fighting, Alice and Julius get the idea to bust the union by bringing the combatants into an indoor boxing ring and charging their hens an egg a piece for admission. Knowing Walt Disney's later opinions on unions (especially after his own workers went on strike in 1941), I couldn't watch this sequence without wondering if he ever saw mass entertainment, or the distribution of his cartoons in particular, as a kind of "tax" motion picture companies could "levy" on workers needing a release from a day on the factory (or picket) lines. Russell Merritt, when asked about this cartoon in the q-and-a following the screening, said that Walt was at this point in his life "spectacularly non-political," for what it's worth.

J.B. Kaufman expressed that a program of other Alice shorts will play an unspecified future date at the Walt Disney Family Museum, this time with live musical accompaniment. I don't believe I've mentioned here on this blog before that this museum, which opened in October, has a charmingly decorated screening room with daily digital screenings - the venue is not at all equipped for 35mm projection, and Merritt in fact believes such a distribution method to be inferior in picture quality to a Blu-Ray transfer taken directly from the negative. Currently, the Walt Disney Family Museum is showing Sleeping Beauty on Blu-Ray daily; I'll reserve judgement until I see it for myself, but I'm sure it at least will look much better than the non-HD copy of Fantasia I watched there last month.

My first encounter with the Alice films was at the 2003 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF), where Virginia Davis was present on the Castro stage to talk about her participation in the series, and six 35mm prints of Alice films were shown alongside a few other early Disney shorts, all accompanied by live music by the accomplished pianist Michael Mortilla. The SFSFF has long considered animation an important piece of its presentation mission; in fact the first film I ever attended at that festival back in 2001- an Italian silent favored by Frederico Fellini called Maciste In Hell, was preceded by one of the Fleischer Brothers' Out Of The Inkwell shorts that influenced Disney's creation of Alice. As returning readers may know, since 2007 I've been on the SFSFF's research & writing committee, tasked with creating educational materials for the festival: program book essays and informative, fun slideshows for each program screened at the festival. I haven't written on an animated program for the festival. (yet?)

Silent-era Disney returned to the 2009 summer festival back in July, most prominently in the form of a kid-friendly matinee tributing Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the character Walt Disney lost creative control of in 1928, inspiring the birth of Mickey Mouse and of Disney's long tradition of aggressively protecting its subsequent intellectual property, even to the point of successfully lobbying for corporate welfare through endless extensions to federal copyright laws. I also made mention of Mickey Mouse in my own slideshow and essay accompanying Douglas Fairbanks As The Gaucho, noting that Disney selected this adventure film to spoof for Mickey's second-ever cartoon, The Gallopin' Gaucho.

After the summer festival, I had time to write about The Gaucho presentation as part of my partial SFSFF wrap-up here at Hell On Frisco Bay, but couldn't get around to Oswald or the rest of day three at the festival before my life began busying again. My quick-and-dirty version: the Oswald program was interactive fun, as pianist Donald Sosin encouraged the audience to join his family in vocalizing sound effects for the Lucky Rabbit's loopy adventures, though I could tell that some of the children in the audience (SFSFF tickets are always free to attendees under 12 years of age) grew restless from the verbal introductions to the films. The rest of the day was terrificly diverse, with an excellent Czechoslovakian drama Erotikon rubbing elbows with W.C. Fields in So's Your Old Man, two experimental versions of Edgar Allan Poe's Fall of the House of Usher, and my favorite new discovery of the festival, D.W. Griffith's Lady of the Pavements, a criminally underrated tearjerker again with Sosin providing accompaniment. (My favorite revisitation being Lillian Gish in the Wind, which I'd never quite appreciated before but was a thrilling masterpiece with Dennis James behind the Wurlitzer organ.)

The SFSFF's annual Winter Event approaches --this year it falls on December 12-- and it promises to be equally diverse and rewarding. The day opens with Sosin playing for Merian C. Cooper and Ernest P. Shoedsack's Chang (the Thai word for 'elephant' rhymes with Kong), a pseudo-documentary filmed in rural Nan Province, on the border of Northern Siam (now Thailand) and Laos. Its frames filled with stampeding elephants, prowling big cats, and a comic-relief gibbon dubbed "Bimbo", this film is more than just a warm-up for Cooper & Shoedsack's 1933 pictures starring an iconic stop-motion giant ape or two. It's a grand entertainment in its own right, and ought to look splendid on the Castro Theatre screen. I'm particularly excited to see Abel Gance's World War I epic J'Accuse as I've never watched a complete film by the legendary French director, whose films have not screened on Frisco Bay in many years. This one is the U.S. Premiere of a new restoration. The J'Accuse score will be a keyboard arrangement of the orchestral score composed by Robert Israel, who will make his first SFSFF appearance with his performance at the Wurlitzer. Dennis James musically handles the final two programs of the day-long event: Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. paired with the Goat, neither of which I've seen on the big screen before, and Tod Browning's West of Zanzibar, which I caught in a Guy Maddin-programmed series at the Pacific Film Archive a few years back.

It's West of Zanzibar, starring Lon Chaney in another of his delectable misfit roles, and featuring supporting turns by Mary Nolan, Warner Baxter and Lionel Barrymore (making his first SFSFF appearance) that I've spent several weeks researching and writing program notes for this time around. Chaney and Browning are already quite familiar to loyal SFSFF audiences, so I elected to focus less on their partnership than on the climate of film censorship in the late 1920's; West of Zanzibar was a rare adaptation (from Broadway, of all places) for the Browning/Chaney duo, so its production was affected by "The Formula", a set of censorship guidelines Hollywood had in place several years before the Hays Code was put into place in the early 1930s. One might consider West of Zanzibar as a silent-era "pre-Code" film, in fact, thanks to the themes of the play (addiction, miscegenation, etc.) that were dialed down only somewhat for the film version.

This post has grown to a monstrous size, but before I press 'publish' let me mention a few more events connected to classic film and the Castro Theatre: Citizen Kane and the Magnificent Ambersons play there today. This weekend features a new print of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon. December 2-10 the theatre holds a tribute to the producer Samuel Goldwyn, including a healthy number of William Wyler films and a Howard Hawks double-bill. From December 16-23 the space is given over to a Alfred Hitchcock series that includes many of the usual favorites from the director, as well as a few that haven't been spied on a Frisco screen for quite a while. And though the Berlin & Beyond festival of German-language film has been postponed until Fall 2010, January at the Castro will feature another beloved festival, the eight edition of Noir City, which has also revealed its lustful, larcenous program on its website.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Adam Hartzell on Art & Copy

The Roxie Theater has announced a number of its Fall and Winter bookings. In reverse chronological order, let me run them down. The venue will close out its centennial year of existence (it opened in 1909 as the C.H. Brown Theater) with a Christmas Day through New Year's Eve booking of the neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves a.k.a. the Bicycle Thief (the latter being a less-precise translation of the original Italian title). This looks to be the third part of a trifecta of Italian Cinema on Frisco Bay this season, beginning with the New Italian Cinema series at the Embarcadero this Sunday, and contining with three of Roberto Rossellini's revered but rarely-screened films, each starring Ingrid Bergman: Stromboli, Europa '51 and Voyage In Italy, at the Pacific Film Archive in the next few weeks.

Back to the Roxie. where documentaries and American independent films rule for most of the rest of 2009.
Uncertainty is the latest film from formerly-Frisco-Bay-based filmmakers Scott McGehee & David Siegel; it opens December 11th. Frazer Bradshaw's Oakland-shot film Everything Strange And New won the FIPRESCI critics' prize at the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this year, and now it plays the Roxie December 4-10. November 20th is opening day for the Roxie run of Defamation, a documentary about anti-Semitism by the director of Checkpoint, Yoav Shamir. I haven't seen the film yet, but I highly recommend Michael Guillén's interview with Shamir at The Evening Class. Tomorrow two more documentaries open for a week at the venue: Gerald Peary's For the Love Of Movie: the Story of American Film Criticism, and Doug Pray's Art & Copy. Adam Hartzell has seen the latter, and reviews it below:

Car ads have no pull on me. The frustrations that occurred from trying to find parking in San Francisco were the final straws to break me from the car habit 7 or so years ago. Now I walk or take public transit everywhere, driving no more than one or two weekends a year, when renting a car for a trip inaccessible by mass transit or running errands while visiting my family in Cleveland. My walks are something I look forward to, thanks to the pleasure of listening to podcasts. And I get a lot of reading done while commuting via mass transit. The false sense of freedom and status that car ads propagate could never live up to how much joy I find from walking around this lovely city and traveling through it with my fellow transit riders.

Yet I know the car ad is quite a draw for some. Car images seem to be commonly chosen as computer wallpaper in corporate spaces. As if taking a page from The Secret, some choose to make their computer screens their ‘vision board’, by wallpapering them with their ideal car in hopes of making that dream a debt-ridden reality. It is these individuals on whom car ads likely work. They are the intended audience. I’m not saying I am immune to ads. When I’m hungry, the properly placed ad might get me to go the extra blocks to Domino’s when Giorgio’s is just around the corner, an act I know adversely affects the local feel of my neighborhood, guilty as charged.

It is the people who make these ads and how the industry has changed, and in the process changed us, that Doug Pray has chosen to focus on in his latest documentary Art & Copy. (He also has chosen to include interviews with an individual who puts the ads up on billboards, an addition that I greatly appreciate. These are often the ‘forgotten people’ in such documentaries. Just as we often talk about directors of films while ignoring all the other people who make films happen, an aspect of film-writing I will regretfully continue here.) The history of the industry is fascinatingly laid out for us like the art and copy of an ad. We learn how advertising shifted the aesthetic of the airline industry from allusions of military granduer to style more fitting a Playboy mansion, how the ‘Just Do It’ phrase was inspired by a death row prisoner’s execution, and how advertising made MTV and Tommy Hilfiger the institutions they are today.

Yet there’s something creeping around this documentary that goes fairly unacknowledged. Pray argues in the press release that “What’s different and perhaps surprising about this movie, is that it isn’t about bad advertising, that 98%, which so often annoys and disrespects its audience. I didn’t want to make a doc that just trashes trashy advertising.” What Pray means here dichotomously is bad/good in the aesthetic sense, not an ethical sense. There is a brief point in the film when talk about the advertising industry’s ‘responsibility’ to the public does rear itself. During this moment in the film, we see visuals of a traffic jam that allude to the peak oil reality of what all those car ads have led us towards. It was here that I found myself recalling an ad not featured, but an ad so dishonest I would scream at the screen or shake a fist towards the TV every time I saw it. It involved an African-American woman on an unidentified city’s mass rail transit line looking dreamily out at a white man in a convertible driving swiftly past her train. The reality this ad shuttered to manipulate its audience is that that train would have more likely headed past that driver stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. It’s ads like that that make me so sick to my stomach, that even the most well-crafted food ad will be about as appetizing as the cheddar that doesn’t melt better than Velveeta.

But this claim that advertising is aware of its responsibilities in Art & Copy appears quite insincere, as if dropped in to distract the Adbusters crowd. The advertising firm which created the ‘Just Do It’ campaign spends a lot of time lauding their genius selves for helping people change their lives by identifying a psychic, spiritual need amongst the populace. But if they are so willing to take credit for the people who ‘Just Did It’ out of bad relationships, are they as willing to claim those who used the exact same mantra to commit adultery? Hell, the ‘Just Do It’ mentality is part of what encouraged the Cheney/Bush administration to lace up its Nike missiles for the non-existent threat in Iraq. Didn’t George Tenet say it’d be a ‘slam dunk, ala Michael Jordan, who, by the way, ‘Just Did’ the most self-serving of Hall of Fame induction acceptance speeches? (Michael Jordan doesn't give us the warm fuzzies he once did, now does he?) Didn’t Bernie Maddoff ’Just Do It’ with his Ponzi scheme hidden as a hedge fund? Weren’t we ‘Just Doing It’ throughout the whole mortgage crisis? See, when the film closes in on the sprawl of a lonely, isolated housing development, I don’t think American Dream. Instead, I wonder how many of those home-‘owners’ are now facing foreclosures after being strongly encouraged to commit to sub-prime loans through a ‘Just Do It’ sales pitch.

This is what goes truly unaddressed in Pray’s advertisement for the advertising industry, resulting in a creepier documentary than Pray ever intended. And that’s the exact reason why I still recommend seeing it at the Roxie this weekend. Perhaps Pray has fallen upon a timing problem. It’s an informative film presenting its ideas with an aesthetic Pray expects will accentuate the artistry and beauty of the ‘best’ of the advertising industry. But as we sift through this recession, even the best laid ad is stripped of any beauty when we reflect on the arguments made in the film against the results. And reflection is the last thing most advertising wants from its audience.

Doug Pray is responsible for one of the most truly inspirational films I’ve ever seen, the brilliant Hip Hop DJ doc Scratch. Art & Copy, however, just left me feeling dirty.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Adam Hartzell on Ari Marcopoulos

Did you know that skateboard technology has been a boon for indie filmmakers as well? Skateboard wheels have become a common fixture on dolly set-ups, putting a wider range of smooth camera movements within reach of cinematographers working under small budgets. It's just another reason why movie lovers who ignore skateboarding culture and the films that have captured it are limiting their grasp of the motion picture medium. Ari Marcopoulos has been a key figure in documenting this so-called "sub"-culture, and his films, many of which depict artforms other than skateboarding, come to Berkeley's premiere screening venue this Wednesday and next. Adam Hartzell has viewed several of them, and contributes the following piece:

Being from Ohio, I have long held to the truth within a comment made by fellow Buckeye Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders. (I swear I heard her say this in an interview I saw televised once.) Growing up in (pre-internet) Akron, she spoke of how she found herself longing for information about the rest of the world via music, books, newspapers and movies. Eventually, she made her way to London where the world came to her, where she said she no longer had to seek it out.

In a way, this speaks of Ari Marcopoulos as well. Born in the even-smaller-than-Ohio Netherlands, he found himself yearning for cultures other than his own. He too began seeking music and art from elsewhere, listening to the likes of John Coltrane and David Bowie, watching the films of Fassbinder, Godard, and Scorsese.

Like Hynde finding her way to London, Marcopoulos sojourned to New York City where he immersed himself in the lives and lofts of musicians such as Eric B. Rakim and Public Enemy and artists such as Jeff Koons and Jean-Michel Basquiat. He had arrived as an artist himself at a vibrant, creative time in New York City for musicians and contemporary artists.

Marcopoulos' career is surveyed at its midpoint this Fall by both the Berkeley Art Museum and the Pacific Film Archive at the University of California, Berkeley. BAM is displaying two gallery rooms of his documentary photographs, while the PFA will screen two collections of Marcopoulos' documentaries of musicians immersed in their work, artists musing in their studios, and athletes exploiting their kinesthetic capital in what has been co-opted under the moniker of 'Extreme Sports'. "Black Eyes and Blue Skies" (Nov. 11) begins with Dave Muller's intense manipulation of sound waves in what appears to be his apartment, whereas "Loud & Clear" (Nov. 18) begins with Kim/Thurston, that is, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth distributing discerning displays of distortion behind the veil-ish bangs that cover their faces. Also screening on the 18th is Claremont, a complete rush of adrenalin that follows skaters Noah Sakamoto and Patrick Rizzo racing down a California road appropriated for their artistic pleasure rather than transportation. Part of what Marcopoulos demonstrates here is how the natural sounds of the bullet-like trajectories of these human projectiles is so much more powerful than any other soundtrack could provide.

Marcopoulos’ films are not just for cinephiles. Hip Hop Heads, Indie Rockers, Skater/Snowboarders, visual artists, and those who find their muse in any of these, each will find much to take away from Marcopoulos' documentation of these artists at the height of the games they play.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Exhilarating Sadness

More than ten years ago, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, then still located in Golden Gate Park, hosted a retrospective of the work of Taiwanese master filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien. I was preparing an extended trip abroad myself at the time, and missed the entire cycle, but upon my return I often heard Hou's name spoken in hushed tones by local moviegoers, and determined to seek his work out. I began with a viewing of Flowers Of Shanghai, starring Tony Leung as a nineteenth-century opium den father in that port city. I was absolutely entranced by its calm power, even though I was watching it on a videocassette tape. I loved it, but knew I would have loved it even more if shown on a beautiful new print. Helped along by assurances of cinephile friends, I was convinced I had been exposed to one of the great living artists of the medium, and I vowed that I would see any film of his that screened in town in a good 35mm print.

Since then, Hou has completed four newer films (Millenium Mambo, Cafe Lumiere, Three Times, and The Flight of the Red Balloon), and I have been sure to see each of them in Frisco cinemas, more than once if I could. Only one film from his back-catalogue has made it onto local screens during this time: Goodbye South, Goodbye, which the since-departed Manny Farber selected to be screened alongside his appearance at the 2003 San Francisco International Film Festival, where the legendary critic received the Mel Novikoff Award and was interviewed on the stage of the Kabuki Theatre in an intimate afternoon event. It was great, but that was the end if my exploration of Hou's pre-Flowers of Shanghai work.

Until now. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts has brought a glorious new print of Hou's 1989 film City of Sadness, also starring Tony Leung, this time as a deaf man named Wen-ching, for a pair of twentieth-anniversary screenings this weekend. Of all of Hou's films, City Of Sadness is the one that is often favorably compared to The Godfather, that most often perches atop lists of the great Chinese-language films of all time, and that gets spoken of with perhaps the most reverence. It's all deserved. I attended last night's screening, and I cannot urge my readers strongly enough to make sure to be at the venue's second and final showing on Sunday afternoon. Especially if you have seen City of Sadness only on imported or bootlegged video before (it has never had a commercial release of any kind in this country) you will surely be astonished by the beauty of the print YBCA is showing.

Last night's viewing was introduced by Manfred Peng of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, who gave a brief but helpful explanation of the political backdrop of City of Sadness. It's considered the first of Hou's "history trilogy" continuing with The Puppetmaster and Good Men, Good Women, all three of which were set against historical events in Taiwan. City of Sadness is set in that late-1940s period between the end of World War II and Japan's relinquishment of the island as one of its colonies, and the 1949 founding of the People's Republic of China. The film was made just a few years after the lifting of Taiwan's ban on mentioning the defining political event of that period, the "228 Incident" or "228 Massacre", still a contentious topic to this day.

I hope that any American politicians or diplomats now involved in relations with Taiwan and China understand the interrelations between various parties involved in 228 and its aftermath well enough to easily identify how all the characters in Hou's film are connected to the event on a single viewing. Even with Mr. Peng's aid, I could not, though I think with more reading on the matter and viewings of the film everything would fall into place for me. However, I do not think City of Sadness demands complete understanding of the events, as it is more about people tragically and capriciously impacted by 228 than it is about the event itself. Hou seems to have made a film where characters' perspectives on the political situation in Taiwan at the time matter less than the effects it has on their lives and those of their loved ones, and so we in the audience do not need to fully comprehend the history in order to comprehend the motivations and the emotions of the film's main players.

Every shot in the film is impeccably framed and lit, each scene impeccably staged, often in a way that stresses the relationship between the weight of history and the ordinary life of citizens living it. For example. As a group of students or intellectuals sit and debate politics, Wen-ching and pretty, young Hinomi (played by Xin Shufen) sit to the side of the room, exchanging notes with each other while a folk song plays on the phonograph. Hou situates his camera in the space between the table of students and the clearly smitten couple. It could be a point-of-view shot from the position of one of the debaters, but that seems unlikely. The students are swept up in their discussion and do not seem to be paying attention to the room's other occupants and their activities. No, this shot isolates the spirited discussion from the would-be lovers' attempts to lead a normal life unhindered by the intrusions of politics. At least for this moment, the two are able to exist in their own world; this sense is accentuated as the sound of the conversation subtly drops out and all we hear are sonorous musical notes as they are released from the record grooves. Wen-ching explains the origin of his deafness at age eight, and how it happened to him so young that it didn't feel like a tragedy.

Hou's own political perspective may be evident throughout the film as well, at least to someone knowledgeable on Taiwanese history. For those of us who are not, we can appreciate his form and technique. He is a master at expressing contrasts of energy, such as the way a violent scene spills out onto a quiet morning street. A scene starts as an interior, as two young men confront each other in a bathroom. Anger escalates until the pair are embroiled in a knife fight, chasing each other down hallways. Hou cuts to an exterior long shot of the town nestled below forested hills. For several seconds there is a decided pause in the violence and the viewer may wonder if it may have ended, but suddenly the combatants are now out on the street, bringing their chaos out into the public sphere. This is not the only scene staged along these lines. The film often gives the viewer opportunities like this to understand how the bloodshed of 228 affected day-to-day life on the island.

I'd be very curious to learn about the production history of City Of Sadness. If it was completely taboo to speak of 228 publicly in Taiwan until just a few years before the film was made (a situation that, by the end of the film, seems symbolically represented by Wen-ching's deafness), then was it Hou himself who chose to be the first filmmaker in his country to take on the topic, or was he approached on the basis of his critically successful earlier films (A Time To Live And A Time To Die, etc.) to apply his sensitive sensibility? These questions and others may be answered as I read more about the film. (Because I want to alert readers to the opportunity to see this new print as quickly as I can, I'm writing this piece relatively "cold", that is, without the benefit of delving into other articles as I usually am wont to do.)

I hope to revisit this film again many times in my life. The second screening at the YBCA is this Sunday, and should take precedence over any other film events happening in town for anyone who has not seen City of Sadness before, no matter their previous experience with Hou or Taiwanese cinema. However, this weekend coincides with Taiwan Film Days at the Opera Plaza, which provides Frisco Bay cinephiles with opportunities to see seven more recent films from the island. And with the Chinese American Film Festival coming to town later this month (featuring John Woo's Red Cliff 2, the allegedly superior sequel to the film opening at Landmark Theatres in November as well), this month is a boon for anyone interested in expanding their understanding of Chinese-language cinema.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Adam Hartzell on Warrior Boyz

"Film Festival Smackdown" - that's Michael Hawley's budding meme coined for the surfeit of special film screening events here on Frisco Bay in November, which he has admirably attempted to cover in this roundup. Rather than looking at this logjam of festivals as something intimidating, I hope local cinephiles feel comfortable sampling the selections like attendees at an overstuffed thanksgiving of diverse goodness. Take a healthy helping of ethnic appetizers from Latin America, Italy, indigenous North American communities, etc. Select main courses from the substantial offerings from the latest Pacific Film Archive or Stanford Theatre calendars. Wash it down with something from the Prime Pacino '71-75 series at the Castro, and enjoy some animation or "CineKink" for dessert. Or switch up the order of your cinematic meal- it all ends up in the same place, in this case not the stomach but a brain and heart well-nourished by the effects of art and culture.

One of the festivals opening tonight is the Frisco-wide favorite 3rd i International South Asian Film Festival, expanded to four days including two at the Roxie and two at the Castro. Both Hawley and Frako Loden have filed previews of the festival for The Evening Class, and now I'm proud to present Adam Hartzell's take on a 3rd i film called
Warrior Boyz, screening tomorrow at the Roxie Theatre. Be sure to check out Hartzell's sf360 preview of Taiwan Film Days, a San Francisco Film Society-sponsored festival opening opening tomorrow at the Opera Plaza Cinema. Adam:

I think it’s is fair to say that, in the mind of the average U.S. citizen, Canada is seen as a Liberal oasis (or, depending on your political predilection, ‘nightmare’). As someone more oasis-leaning, I find much to admire about Canada. But as I’ve done more and more reading of and listening to Canadian media, I’ve found much to nudge away ever so slightly whatever naïve views I previously held about our neighbors to the north.

Ali Kazimi’s documentary Continuous Journey was perhaps my first big oasis evaporator. That documentary was about the Komagata Maru, a ship of 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims, and 12 Hindus, who as British subjects had every right to settle anywhere in the Empire, were denied entry in Canada and forced to stay in Vancouver Bay for several days while court hearings considered their plight. The film exposed me to Canada’s history of racism, a different image from the multicultural apex I was imagining Canada to be at the time. (In 2006, it was announced that Deepa Mehta was scheduled to make a fictional film about the tragedy, casting Akshay Kumar in the lead role in 2008.)

Similarly, if Bowling for Columbine had you thinking violence was only something Canadians experienced from watching U.S. television shows and movies (shows and movies filled with Canadian actors and filmed in Canadian locales hidden as U.S. cities), Warrior Boyz will have you recasting your Canadian (national) character as well. Like Continuous Journey, it’s a documentary about Sikh-Canadians that is the impetus of this adjustment of Canada as a country.

I had heard about the gang problems in the Sikh-Canadian community of Surrey, British Columbia through an interview with the director of Warrior Boyz on Q - The Podcast on the CBC and an article in The Walrus magazine. Both had me anxious to see this documentary, so I was happy that the folks at 3rd i have brought it to us. (They will also be bringing Director Baljit Sangra to discuss the film after the screening.) The film primarily follows four real-life characters, a Vice Principal and a former gang member each on personal crusades to keep kids from joining gangs or helping them find a way out, and two gang members of polar trajectories. It’s not a brilliant documentary, but it is decidedly engaging, particularly when the former gang member reveals his motivations for joining the gang. He didn’t fall into it like in so many after-school specials. He actively sought his way into gang life. Thankfully, he actively sought his way out before he died.

As powerful is the one active gang member’s inability to look into the camera throughout the documentary. When we first meet him, his accidental gaze at the lens, and by extension us, is the only time he startles, running away from the returned gaze of the camera. It is the strongest statement of all about the paradoxes of gang life. It gives him a confidence that hides the insecurity still visible in his inability to make eye contact with his imagined audience, his existential jury. Even more topical with the recent attack on Jagdish Grewal, an editor of a Punjabi newspaper in Brampton, Ontario, this documentary definitely brings a third eye to an oft-filmed topic, demonstrating the tremendous value festivals like 3rd i consistently provide.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Adam Hartzell: DocFest 2009

Adam Hartzell reports on three features in the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, a.k.a. DocFest, opening tonight at the Roxie. More coverage of the 14-day event is available at sf360, at the Evening Class, and at the SF Bay Guardian website and arts & culture blog. Adam:

I have ambivalent feelings about the use of ridicule in documentaries, such as those of Sascha Baren Cohen, Bill Maher or Michael Moore. As much as I might agree with the political views of these filmmakers, we know that the tactic of ridicule can impede efforts to bring people over to other views. Rather than convince people, ridicule can end up causing the other party to be defensive. And in the form of ridicule, any efforts to educate are received instead as condescension. Yet there are individuals and organizations that are not interested in actually furthering debate or illuminating discussion. They seek to obfuscate, to inject disinformation for the sole purpose of confusing people from knowing the factual information. (I’m looking at you FOX/GOP network!) When facing disinformation campaigns, I find ridicule useful to reduce the power that figure or the organization they speak for might illegitimately have. As much as I might feel Bill Maher often goes overboard, when he mocks Glenn Beck with a fake Beck book release entitled Painting with Poop, Maher is homing in perfectly on the insanity of Beck’s idiotic ideas.

Of the three DVDs I screened for the 8th edition of the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, none were out to ridicule their subjects. They treated each subject with dignity. But if there is any topic that deserves ridicule, it’s the nonsense of the Young Earth Creationists and their efforts to muddy up progress with false claims that the earth is only roughly 6,000 years old.

In this way, I find Todd Gitlin’s The Earth Is Young problematic since it is vulnerable to lending an unwarranted legitimacy to Young Earth Creationism’s fraudulent claims. Real world scientific evidence is stacked against the claims made by Young Earth Creationists in this reel world. They disregard science in order to advocate their pre-ordained beliefs. My concern is that without placing the proselytizing of Young Earth Creationists into context, we risk their views receiving unwarranted respectability. Call me a worrywart, but I’m concerned that by having such scientifically unfounded claims sit there in the democratic vat, the result would lead us towards dormancy on necessary public policy issues, such as our need to address climate change and our need to implement infrastructure changes to address the post-petroleum, post-car future that is soon upon us.

Yet, Gitlin’s documentary is intentionally off-putting, so the approach is not completely problematic since this creeping creepiness throughout the film is the indirect critique that I would rather be more direct. The drone we hear throughout the film, the voice-of-god-like blob cleverly placed amongst the microscopic world of microorganisms, the focus on the mute faces and gesticulating hands, these all add to the overall eerie feel of the documentary underscored by the bizarre claims made by the practitioners. It is this discomforting imprint that stays with me, leaving me not just unimpressed with the proselytizing trying to pass for scientific research, but a bit frightened as well.

For those who like their film-festival experience to overlap thematically, the Young Earth Creationists make an appearance in Joe Winston and Laura Cohen’s film adaptation of Thomas Frank's non-fiction book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? As much as I might disagree with the political views of the Christian Conservatives, I appreciate how the directors refuse to ridicule them here. This allows for a more accurate portrayal rather than the caricatures drawn in some liberal circles. For those who haven’t yet, I suggest reading the book rather than relying on this documentary to inform you. The arguments laid out by Frank regarding how working class conservatives vote against their own economic interests are made more compellingly in the book than the film. But then again, maybe I just have a book-bias when it comes to nonfiction, because there is some action at the end (which I can’t reveal here without spoiling) that underscores Frank’s thesis. What this documentary does do in some ways better than the book is humanize the citizens of an oft-ridiculed state of the union. Plus, since this documentary takes place during the federal midterm election after the publication of Frank’s book, it provides a snapshot of a political shift in Kansas. I don’t think we’re in What’s the Matter with Kansas?’s Kansas anymore, Toto. Kansan Politics have begun to matter a little differently.

The best of the films I caught for this year’s SF DocFest was Patrick Shen’s The Philosopher Kings. Shen focuses his camera on the lives and philosophies of those in what is considered by many as the lowliest of professions, the custodian. Several janitors at several academic institutions are interviewed on their thoughts about their jobs, their futures, life, death, and everything in between. Personal epistemologies are espoused by each of these custodians based on life experience. Shen demonstrates each unique perspective while also drawing life parallels, such as accidents and family histories, along with similar situations specific to janitorial work.

In this way, Shen demonstrates the interplay between ‘structure’ and ‘agency’ put forth by Anthony Giddens. As Andrew Hickey notes of Giddens’ work in Hickey’s contribution to iPod and Philosophy: iCon of an ePoch, this is “An interplay that operates as a negotiation between the structural conditions of existence you find yourself in and the desires you have to express a certain identity” (p 124). The agency found within the structures of their profession is quite evident in The Philosopher Kings, from Melinda Augustus of the University of Florida who engages in self study of the butterflies in the building she cleans, to Corby Baker who finds inspiration for his own artwork in the student projects he dusts at Cornish College of Arts in Seattle.

Locals might recognize the UC Berkeley representative, Michael Seals. But many in the film argue that it is likely locals won’t recognize him, since we often make our janitors invisible. As someone who regularly greets and talks with the janitorial staff at my work, I am often disappointed at the levels others engage in to ignore the presence of those who assure our facilities are presentable and work smoothly. Others seem to walk around them as if they are a poorly placed pillar in the middle of the room by some absent-minded architect, looking away from them as if they are not worthy of everyday salutations. The Philosopher Kings gently addresses the injustices of such invisibility. It is an absolute gift of a film that will hopefully leave audiences with a change in perspective, which is the aim of every good philosopher, and of every good documentary.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Adam Hartzell: Mill Valley Film Festival

It's happening again. Like last October, when I noted the proliferation of film festivals descending on town, there are more than a dozen Frisco Bay festivals currently running or set to begin in the next month or so. And that's with the disappearance of two significant horror festivals that have bowed out of the pre-Halloween frenzy this year, Dead Channels and Shock It To Me! Check my top of my sidebar on the right side of this screen to see the list of this season's events.

I wish I could attend all of these and write about them, but it's simply impossible. I do regularly link to other online articles on the festivals on my twitter feed, so be sure to follow me (if you're on twitter) or to regularly check the feed if you're not. I try to keep my tweets useful; if you're finding I'm achieving otherwise or have other suggestions of any kind don't hesitate to send me feedback.

One festival already begun, and running for another week, is the 32nd Mill Valley Film Festival, which has been written about by Michael Hawley and by Susan Gerhard, among others. Sadly, this year I haven't been able to see many of the entries. In fact, I've only seen two features, both prior to the festval's lineup was announced. However, they're both masterpieces that deserve to be seen in 35mm prints on the big screen: Johnny To's buoyant
Sparrow; whether you're a Johnnie To fan or virgin viewer, you have never seen anything quite like in his oeuvre. I wrote a bit about it in January, and it plays tomorrow (Monday) night at the Sequoia Theatre at 9:30 PM. The other is Pierrot le Fou, Jean-Luc Godard's whirlwind of primary color and revolution, which plays the Smith Rafael Film Center Tuesday at 6PM. Programmed as part of an in-person tribute to the legendary Anna Karina that unfortunately had to be postponed until spring due to "non-life-threatening" injuries recently sustained by the actress, the screenings of Pierrot le Fou and of the North American Premiere of her second film as a director, Victoria, this coming Friday, are noteworthy enough even without an international celebrity in attendance.

Though I really haven't explored the MVFF program for myself, Adam Hartzell has previewed five features from Southern Hemisphere nations, and I'm very thankful to him that he has offered up his thoughts on them. Adam:

The Mill Valley Film Festival is upon us again, providing a lovely excuse to venture out for a Punjabi burrito in the town centre of Mill Valley. As usual, the amount of film choices on offer can be a bit overwhelming, so to whittle it down to a manageable few, I decided to take the MVFF’s focus on Australian and New Zealand cinema as an opportunity to finally read the Australia/New Zealand edition from the 24 Frames series on world cinemas. And being that the Tri-Nations rugby series just finished with South Africa the winners, I decided to check out a few South African films, making up my own Tri-Nations film series

Let’s start off with the losers, Australia. Losers of this year’s Tri-Nations rugby, that is, not of the films I screened. Fiona Cochrane’s Four of a Kind was an intriguing film once I let the story ride. Four of a Kind was a reminder of how I expect a film to ‘look’, because, I had to filter out the low quality production values in order to appreciate what the film had to offer in interlocking storylines. The film follows a murder suspect, a detective, a therapist, and a therapist’s friend as they confront one another’s lies and past lives. The film presents dialogue intermixed with enactments of the dialogue, where the viewer is privileged to actions and words that are not mentioned in the dialogue, allowing for nice layering that peels away ever so slowly near the end. All this provides the viewer with the pleasure of trying to guess at how things will end based on the clues dropped throughout. However, utilizing Blues singer Joe Camilleri to chop up each chapter simply didn’t work for me. I understand his lyrics are meant to heighten the plot, but these recording session intermissions provided more of a disruption for me than an enhancement. Also, I must admit that I’m wondering if I’ve developed an a-musicality for certain musical genres. And I’ve never been a Blues man.

Second place at this year’s Tri-Nations was New Zealand. And both NZ films on offer for this year’s MVFF focus on the Antipodes are enjoyable pieces. Sima Urale’s Apron Strings follows two families. One family consists of two estranged Sikh-New Zealander sisters and the son of one who seeks to find his roots while reconciling his mother and his aunt. The second family are Pakeha (European) New Zealanders, a mother anxious about the changing demographics of her neighborhood and a thirty-something son whose gambling addiction forestalls any attempts to get a proper job and a home of his own. I had first heard about this film from an interview with Urale on Radio National New Zealand. That interview had intrigued me to see this film and I was happy MVFF provided such an opportunity. Although there are better immigration narratives, Apron Strings is still a delightful addition to the genre.

Armagen Ballantyne’s The Strength of Water is definitely the strongest of the five screeners I watched. Wonderfully paced, this film follows the tragedy that erupts when a familiar stranger enters this Maori seaside village and particularly how one young brother grieves through his personal loss. The desperation of a limited economy and limited options highlights what is often ignored in order to propel plots along. And in refusing to deny economic reality, the story becomes much more than just a psychological portrait of a grieving youngster. The Strength of Water is an example of a prime reason I am motivated to attend film festivals, to find out about a gem you had never heard of and are likely to never get a chance to see again.

Yet I get the feeling I’ll get a chance to see Anthony Fabian’s film Skin again. Representing the winners of this year’s Tri-Nations, South Africa, Skin seems made for Oscar bidding. (Most of it is in English, disqualifying it from the foreign-language film entry, so the Oscar efforts will need to be spent in other categories.) Actress Sophie Okonedo of Hotel Rwanda and The Secret Life of Bees plays Sandra Laing, a real-life individual of black phenotypes born of parents of white phenotypes.

For those who need a genetics refresher, phenotypes represent the physical expression of genes, such as red hair, black skin, etc. As for how a child that looks black could come from white parents, the film allows the audience to sit with this confusion initially to allow for suspicions of possible infidelity. However, the genetic reality is presented in a court case. If there are genes of black phenotypes in a family’s genetic tree, these phenotypes could express themselves later down the line of the family tree even if the black child is of parents who present white phenotypes.

Unwilling to accept their daughter looking black, and more so unwilling to confront the racism of South African apartheid and lose their white privilege, her father (played by Sam Neill) campaigns to have his daughter classified as white in South African courts. The disturbing absurdity of this all comes to the hilt in a brief scene at the beginning when we witness young Sandra and her father joyfully celebrate a court decision. However, regardless of Sandra’s legal claims to white privilege, her actual treatment by whites leaves her isolated. After returning home from high school, she finds herself curious about a black delivery man and drawn to the community out of which her father so desperately tried to keep her. Although an interesting story that needs to be told, Skin doesn’t seem like a film that will stay with me as long as The Strength of Water will. Skin wears thin on my eyes like a film vying for an Oscar that I’ve seen before, whereas The Strength of Water is confident in its own skin, impressing me at its own pace, in its own patient structure.

Yet Skin is better than the other South African film on option, Jann Turner’s White Wedding. And disappointingly, White Wedding is the film South Africa has actually submitted for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s not the kind of film that seems to win in that category. White Wedding is just a film that wants to have a little fun along the way to a too easily resolved ending. I don’t have a problem with such films at all. I like a little harmless fun too. But this isn’t the kind of grand film to which we often award prestigious prizes.

A South African road movie, the film follows the groom Elvis as he runs into trouble travelling from Johannesburg via Durban to his wedding in Cape Town. His bride, Ayanda, is tempted in his delay (and his often being out of cell phone range) by the return of a financially successful former beau. Along the way Elvis and his best man find an Irish woman who has stowed herself away in their truck. And later they find themselves stranded in a village full of Afrikaner redneck stereotypes to add further tensions. All these tensions need to be resolved by the end of this road trip. My interest in this film was to watch a film from elsewhere to see how that elsewhere is experienced (or better yet, dramatized) by those who live there. This experience is another reason why I attend film festivals. It allows me to watch another country’s successful mainstream films (White Wedding had a run of eleven consecutive weeks across South Africa), not just the art films.

The five screeners I watched represent the various motivations audiences might have fulfilled by a film festival such as MVFF. Whether you’re looking for the film that slowly grows on you (The Strength of Water), the plot-weaving tapestry (Four of a Kind), the film that doesn’t require all the characters to be white (Apron Strings, The Strength of Water, Skin, and White Wedding), or the Oscar contender (Skin and White Wedding), the Mill Valley Film Festival’s got your preference.