Tuesday, January 13, 2009

I Only Have Two Eyes: Rob Davis

2008 was another great year for Frisco Bay repertory/revival screenings. I'm so pleased that a number of local cinephiles have agreed to provide a list of their favorite events attended here over the year. An index of participants is found here.

The following list comes from Robert Davis, surgeon general of the Daily Plastic:

Muriel (Resnais), PFA, 1/16

In 2008 I managed to revisit a number of old favorites on the big screen, but for this list I'm excluding anything that I'd seen before. Without that rule, my list would certainly include my week's worth of Last Year at Marienbad, projected on the Castro's giant screen. But 2008 was also the year that I finally caught the third in Resnais's masterful trio of films that begins with Hiroshima mon amour, pivots into a spin at Marienbad, and then pops with color in the end. I'd waited a long time to see Muriel, and I almost opted for the DVD, but I'm glad I didn't. Made only a short time after Marienbad, Muriel feels somehow of a different era, but what a joy it was to discover that Resnais continued his experiments with narrative, visual form, and human memory with full and enviable energy. Muriel is first on my list because, of these ten, it's the film I most want to see again.

Los Olvidados (Buñuel), PFA, 3/7 and 3/12

Last year my list included a Buñuel short that I'd never seen, Land Without Bread (which I saw again this year at the PFA), and I wish I could be so lucky as to find an unseen Buñuel film every year in perpetuity so as to sustain a revery, as Buñuel might say. This year, it was Los Olvidados, a refreshingly unsentimental take on children in peril, a delicate subject whose best films convey an outrage at the cruelty without milking the situation for pity. I saw the film a second time mostly to feel my pulse quicken during the dream sequence, when the film goes from faux neo-realism to full-on Buñuelian dream-terror.

In Vanda's Room (Costa), PFA, 3/2

I'd seen Colossal Youth previously but took full advantage of Costa's residency at the PFA to see not only that film again but also each of his other films and shorts (minus his most recent, which screened at NYFF '07), including his meditational portrait of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. He spoke casually and passionately after each screening, and at one point he said that he feels one half of his head is devoted to Straub-Huillet and the other half Tourneur. But he also spent a lot of time talking about Chaplin, a subject dear to my heart, and I'm rather astounded that his comments illuminated both Costa's and Chaplin's films in ways I'd never imagined. But the film that drew me in most completely was In Vanda's Room, Costa's greatest work to date and the perfect balance between captured essence and imposed narrative.

Weekend (Godard), PFA, 2/15

One of the difficulties of trying to see important films projected on celluloid before watching them on DVD is that you're a slave to calendars and screening schedules, so you end up with gaping holes in your viewing. Case in point: Weekend. It's essential Godard, a film I wish I'd seen sooner but one that I can't imagine now without thinking of the uncomfortable audience around me. The centerpiece of the film is an absurdly long tracking shot of automotive carnage, but Godard's jokes, quotations from Lewis Carroll, and light flourishes are tempered by long stretches that seem designed in part to make the viewer squirm, and that design works far better without remote controls and ringing telephones.

Secret Ceremony (Losey), Castro, 4/9

After hearing two of my favorite cinephiles tell me how strange Joseph Losey's films were, I couldn't pass up the double bill of Eva and Secret Ceremony at the Castro. In the first, this Wisconsin-born filmmaker seems to be channeling certain European filmmakers for Jeanne Moreau's black-and-white ennui. But it's the second that knocked me around. Neither Polanski's Rosemary's Baby nor Altman's Three Women is an apt comparison, but both came to mind as I was watching. (A short-haired Mia Farrow is partly to blame.) In the end, all I can do is emit a hearty WTF.

The Terrorizer (Yang), PFA, 3/14

I know this is technically a film festival screening, but I'm making a special exception for the mini-retrospective of the late Edward Yang's films organized by the SFIAAFF. I'd seen Yi-Yi before and this year found that A Brighter Summer Day lived up to advance word as a similarly sprawling drama. But I was wholly unprepared for the postmodern goodness that is The Terrorizer, which demonstrates that a dense and enigmatic stillness can be more suspenseful than fast cuts and a thumping soundtrack. And it reveals that "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" has affected more than one Taiwanese filmmaker.

Benny's Video (Haneke), Roxie, 3/30

Coincident with the release of Haneke's intriguing Funny Games remake, the Roxie showed both the Austrian original and an earlier film, Benny's Video, which -- I can see in retrospect -- acts as a kind of roadmap to Haneke's later films and adds yet another cycle to an oeuvre of iteration.

The Immortal Story (Welles), PFA, 4/11

If 2008 filled a hole in my movie watching bigger than Godard's Weekend, it had to be The Magnificent Ambersons, which screened as part of the extensive Welles series at the PFA. It was wonderful as expected, and the series gave me the chance to re-watch a few of my faves, notably The Trial. But, persuaded as I am by Jonathan Rosenbaum's argument that Welles continued to be a vibrant artist throughout his life despite his commercial failure, the contrarian in me has chosen The Immortal Story for this list, a soft, lush work in gauzy color that also, coincidentally, stars Jeanne Moreau. It's an hour-long story about storytelling, brief and beautiful, quiet as crushed velvet.

Light Work Mood Disorder (Reeves), Artist's Television Access, 3/15

Jennifer Reeves came to town for a few days to show some of her experimental films, including clips of a work in progress called When it Was Blue, which is now showing up on several year-end lists. But I particularly love the films that simply must be seen live because they involve multiple projectors, multiple screens, and a filmmaker who syncs them up manually, a bit differently every time. Light Work Mood Disorder is made out of celluloid and light, and it's the kind of work that will disappear along with 16mm film once digital video takes over the world. Cherish it while you can.

Frownland (Bronstein), Roxie, 2/16

Debut films don't get any more committed than this. Ronald Bronstein's characters seem observed rather than created, which makes them -- and Bronstein's uncomfortably close vantage point -- deeply unsettling. But stepping away from the visceral discomfort of the film, I kept thinking about the remarkable structure of people in pairs. The put-upon in one pair is doing the putting in another, the sophisticate in one room is the rube in another. Circumstances shift, and Bronstein drifts away from what seems to be the film's spine long enough to find the differences. It's the only new film in my list, but I'm including it because its release was so tiny no one was sure which best-of lists it was eligible for, and because I almost included it in my favorite new films of the year.

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