Sunday, May 3, 2009

SFIFF52 Day 11: Once Upon A Time In The West

The 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival is wrapping up its final weekend; it runs through Thursday, May 7. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about one film I've seen or am hotly anticipating.

Once Upon a Time in the West (ITALY: Sergio Leone, 1968)

playing: 12:30 PM this afternoon at the Castro, with no more showtimes later in the festival.
distributor: Yes, it's on DVD, but come on! How can screens much smaller than a railroad car do justice to this big, big film? And who knows when the next time the print prepared by the Film Foundation might come back around town?

Dennis Harvey has written a terrific piece on this film and its director at sf360, and Carl Martin has a few words on it in his restoration round-up. I doubt I have any great personal insights on Once Upon a Time in the West that others haven't already made common knowledge. I'd just like to add that it's my personal favorite of Leone's films, and among my favorite Westerns of all time.

Westerns are one of those signature American inventions, like Jazz and personal computers, whose very existence reveals a great deal about this country. Some are politically problematic, it's true, but many of the best ones (OUATITW included) are more nuanced in their explorations of American individualism, race, gender, and human relationships with the natural environment, than the average left-leaning Blue Stater is likely to recognize without a little education in the genre. I had the same prejudices myself a mere ten years ago, yet I consider myself even more of a lefty now than I was then.

Thus, Westerns screen all too rarely in the Frisco Bay area for my liking. The Castro shows some on occasion; Johnny Guitar will play May 20th as part of the theatre's "Women on the Verge" series. The Pacific Film Archive shows some, usually in director retrospectives; their new May-June calendar includes a good one, Gunman's Walk, as part of a Phil Karlson series. The Stanford shows them a bit more regularly; their current John Wayne film series includes two of my other all-time favorites on a May 8-10 double-bill: Fort Apache and the Searchers. But compare even this to the amount of classic and rare film noir that gets shown on local screens (for example, the Roxie's upcoming I Wake Up Dreaming series May 15-28) and it's rather pathetic. So I very much appreciate that the SFIFF has decided to bring a Western as part of their package of archival screenings. I hope the Castro is bustling and that popcorn sales are brisk, signaling to local repertory bookers that they ought to show more of the same!

SFIFF52 Day 11
Another option: Nights of Cabiria (ITALY: Frederico Fellini, 1957), with Rialto Pictures and Film Forum director Bruce Goldstein in discussion with Anita Monga as he follows her in receiving the Mel Novikoff award- nearly always my favorite of the SFIFF award presentations each year.
Non-SFIFF-option for today: Come and See (USSR: Elem Klimov, 1985) at the Rafael Film Center, introduced by Sean Penn. This harrowing World War II picture plays something like Tarkovsky's My Name is Ivan after colliding with an ultraviolent 1970s exploitation picture. It's screening as part of the Rafael's 10th anniversary "Films of My Life" celebration. UPDATE 5/4/2009: Turns out the screening is tonight; sorry for the mix-up!


  1. It's great to see someone of Penn's celebrity champion a film. He's the one who brought Come and See to SFIFF's "Indelible Images", when that sidebar still existed. It's such an incredible film, whose title I recently learned comes from a Biblical passage.

  2. It's indeed amazing. I missed it when it played that "indelible images" sidebar, but saw it later at the Roxie, and on DVD.

    There's Penn for you these days: introducing a brutally harrowing war movie one minute, preparing to play Larry Fine the next. Nyuk Nyuk!

  3. Just a mention that if you can, take advantage of the Phil Karlson retrospective as these films aren't available to be seen in any other format.

  4. I think Kansas City Confidential is on DVD but you're right that the others are not, Peter. And having seen the Phenix City Story the last time a Karlson mini-retro came through town, I can attest that his films have great power on the big screen.