Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Adam Hartzell's Oshima Reading Guide

Brian here. Lots of cinematic happenings on Frisco Bay this week! The Another Hole In The Head festival of indie horror, sci-fi and other genre film opens Friday at the Roxie; it's been heavily previewed by Jay Blodgett, though I liked Coming Soon more than he did I think. The SF Film Society Screen at the Kabuki cranks into gear again starting the same day with a week-long booking of Carlos Saura's Fados. But for me, the most exciting events occur in Berkeley at the Pacific Film Archive, where critic and programmer James Quandt will be in attendance for two evenings of screenings in the Nagisa Oshima retrospective that began last weekend. I shamefully have only seen two Oshima films so far (at least one of them, Death By Hanging is clearly a masterpiece even to a newbie like myself). But since my buddy Adam Hartzell is one of the most devoted fans of this living legend that I'm aware of, I'm absolutely thrilled that he has offered to provide a guide to navigating the Oshima ocean that this retrospective may appear to be, and to share with Hell on Frisco Bay readers. He shows me up starting from his first sentence, using the proper Japanese name order (surname first, personal name second) that I haven't trained myself to adopt. Here's Adam:

The Pacific Film Archive is in the realm of Oshima Nagisa for the next month and a half. James Quandt of the Cinematheque Ontario has done the hard work of rounding up the prints and rights to screen a all but one of Oshima’s feature films, along with a couple his documentaries. Having taken his series on the road, we had to wait until the end of the run to get our chance to see Oshima films rarely screened anywhere in North America before, let alone the Bay Area, such as Three Resurrected Drunkards, or films screened occasionally, but since they aren’t available on (English-subbed) DVDs yet, one is completely reliant on screenings to re-view them, such as two of my favorite Oshima films Death By Hanging and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. (Why that latter film is not on DVD with English subtitles yet is completely confounding since it features David Bowie and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto in a sublimated Gay love story and also features Beat Takeshi.)

But rather than recommend more films from the series, I wanted to take this time to recommend a reading list instead. So here are the books in my library that I recommend you seek out to help you formulate your own theories and questions while watching a treasure trove of Oshima’s oeuvre on hand this early summer.

Maureen Turim – The Films of Oshima Nagisa: Images of a Japanese Iconoclast (University of California Press, 1998)

This is the definitive book on Oshima and the one that has made me so anxious for this retrospective. Turim discusses so many films to which I have yet to have access. But thanks to Quandt and the PFA, I can now compare Turim’s arguments with what I see when watching, A Town of Love and Hope, Shiro Amakusa, the Christian Rebel, Pleasures of the Flesh, A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, Three Resurrected Drunkards, Dear Summer Sister, and the documentary Yunbogi’s Diary. (Two other films I have yet to see that will be screening, but not addressed in Turim’s book, are Band of Ninja and Double Suicide: A Japanese Summer.) Thanks to Quandt and PFA, I can revisit films I once owned on VHS, Cruel Story of Youth, The Sun’s Burial, Violence at Noon, In the Realm of the Senses, and Empires of Passion after which I can then revisit Turim’s commentary. (I say ‘once owned’ because money concerns recently had me cashing them in at Amoeba. So if you want to snag them, they are likely still there. Thankfully, I held on to Max Mon Amour, Oshima’s fully French-funded film that features actress Charlotte Rampling playing an upper-class woman who has begun an affair with a chimpanzee. Sadly, this is the only Oshima feature film not on offer at the retrospective Quandt has compiled.) I can also revisit both film and theory with Night and Fog in Japan, The Catch, Death by Hanging, Boy, The Ceremony, the Man Who Left His Will On Film, and Oshima’s contribution to the British Film Institute’s Century of Cinema project, 100 Years of Japanese Cinema, films that had previously shown at the PFA, SFMoMA, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. (Gohatto will also be part of the retrospective; it was released in the Bay Area but it was made after Turim’s book was published.)

Oshima Nagisa – Cinema, Censorship and the State: The Writings of Oshima Nagisa (The MIT Press, 1992)

Or perhaps you want to become acquainted with Oshima’s own words on his own films. If so, then you’ll definitely want to check out Cinema, Censorship and the State. In this collection of Oshima’s writings you will find valuable complimentary commentary on Oshima’s trips to impoverished South Korea, (this was pre-economic-miracle, when South Korea was nothing like it is today), a nice companion piece to the screening at the retrospective of the documentary Yonbogi’s Diary. Also, invaluable to the screening of In the Realm of the Senses, is Oshima’s commentary on the obscenity trial that followed that film. Ironically, it appears it was never screened, ehem, uncut in Japan until 2000.

And speaking of In the Realm of the Senses, if you haven’t heard it spoken of before, it is Oshima’s take on the Abe Sada story. If you’re a film fanatic, you surely have already heard about the significant moments that occur within this film. But spoiler ethics keep me from going into too much detail. Let me say this though. Do not go with a date, unless you are very, very comfortable with that person. Also, don’t bring your parents or grandparents. Finally, let me say, as a man, I have seen this film roughly five times, and although I can keep my eyes open during the mid-climaxes, I have yet to be able to keep my eyes open at the final climax. I agree with many who argue In the Realm of the Senses is not just a glorified porno flick. (In Japanese, it’d be better to compare this film to a ‘Pink Film’, which are considered separate from what most of us intend by the moniker ‘porno’.) Many consider it a film of high quality and one that makes significant commentary on the encroaching Japanese empire of the time in which the film is set. The British Film Institute felt similarly, and included In the Realm of the Senses in its film monograph series. Joan Mellon does the honors for this monograph and includes a nice short overview of Oshima’s work and themes. Another British publishing house, Wallflower Press, includes an essay on In the Realm of the Senses by Samara Lea Allsop in The Cinema of Japan and Korea, part of their 24 Frames world cinema series. (This is where I’m obligated to say I also have an essay in the same book. Mine is on Hong Sangsoo’s The Power of Kangwon Province (1998). And this is also where I’m obligated to apologize for the personal plug.)

Finally, before or after the PFA’s screening of The Catch, you might want to read the Oe Kenzaburo story on which the film is based. Oe, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, is my favorite fiction writer. I have read every book by him that has been translated into English. His novel A Personal Matter is one of the few books I’ve read more than twice. (Another is Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. And the reason I was so strongly drawn to both authors was limned when I read Oe’s Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age. Ironically, it’s not the William Blake reference of the title that stuck out for me but the confirmation in the novel that the ethical quandaries of the Abraham and Isaac story were indeed a concern throughout Oe’s oeuvre.) 'The Catch' is a story that explores the theme of racism as transference where a Japanese village’s psychosexual issues are thrown upon an African-American soldier whose plane crashes into their village during World War II. The translation I have of ‘The Catch’ is actually entitled 'Prize Stock', a title I find more in sync with the story’s theme, and is found in a wonderful collection of Oe's short stories entitled Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness (Grove Press, 1994).

So there are some titles to checkout either at the library or one of the many independent bookstores in the Bay Area to enhance the already wonderful experience the Pacific Film Archives is providing for us cinephiles.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Silent Film Festivals

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has revealed its full program lineup for the 14th annual edition of its summer celebration of a glorious age of filmmaking. The festival runs July 10-12 at the Castro Theatre. For the third year in a row, I've been a member of the festival's research and writing group, each of us charged with writing an essay and/or compiling a slide show to accompany one of the films selected by the festival programmers. My film this time around has been the Gaucho, the penultimate silent film produced and starred by Douglas Fairbanks, the original cinematic swashbuckler. For the past few months I've dug deeply into "Doug" (as his fans nicknamed him), reading biographies, articles and essays, and watching seventeen of his thirty-eight silent films (six of which are presumed lost), including all the films contained on the recent Flicker Alley DVD release (now available at the SF Public Library). The Gaucho is not on that set, though it is available on DVD through Kino. Still, it's one of the least-seen of his costume adventure films, even though it was a hit at the time of its original release, and showcases a terrific feature debut performance by Lupe Vélez, the so-called "Mexican Firecracker".

The Gaucho is the festival's opening-night film, and it should be a delightful way to open a weekend of beautiful restored prints from around the world, live performances by silent-film music specialists, and general merriment. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will be appearing, for the third time at the festival, premiering a brand-new in-period score to the film. The screening is co-presented by the Mexican Museum, quite appropriately since though the film is set in a picture-book version of the Argentine Andes, many of the film's actors and extras in addition to Vélez were in fact of Mexican descent.

My essay will be available as part of a complimentary program guide presented to everyone who attends the festival. It may also appear online at some future date; the festival has recently begun making essays from certain previous programs available on its website. My essays for the festival's screenings of Teinosuke Kinugasa's Jujiro in 2008 and William C. de Mille's Miss Lulu Bett in 2007 are among those currently viewable, though I highly recommend browsing the archive and reading essays by all the writers in the group; they are intended to be equally useful for people who have seen the films in question, and for those who haven't.

In addition to the Gaucho, this year's festival includes nine feature films, two presentations of shorts and rare fragments (a set of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons, and the annual free Amazing Tales From the Archives presentation), and almost every feature will also be preceded by a short film featuring a silent film star celebrating her centennial year in the cinema in 2009: Mary Pickford. I can particularly recommend two films I've seen at the Pacific Film Archive, but which should be particularly stunning on the Castro's towering screen: Josef Von Sternberg's prototypical gangster film Underworld, and Victor Sjostrom's most famous film the Wind, starring Lillian Gish.

I have not yet seen the other features, but I am extremely excited to see the version of Fall of the House of Usher directed by French critic-turned-filmmaker Jean Epstein, and the Chinese film Wild Rose, directed by Shanghai's perhaps most notable auteur of the era, Sun Yu. Wild Rose stars Jin Yan, the Korean-born matinee idol who played opposite tragic Ruan Ling-yu in the 2000 SFSFF film the Peach Girl. His widow Qin Yi will be in attendance at the screening.

Terry Zwigoff, maker of Crumb, Ghost World and Bad Santa has been invited to provide the "director's pick" this year, following up on Guy Maddin's selection the Unknown last summer. Zwigoff will present W.C. Fields in what is generally regarded as the comedian's finest silent film, So's Your Old Man. The festival will bring its first-ever film from the Czechoslovakian silent film industry, Erotikon by Gustav Machaty, who would later make Hedy Lamarr famous worldwide when directing her nude scene in Ecstasy. Also from Eastern Europe is the late-night pick co-presented by MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS, Aelita, Queen of Mars, a big-budget science fiction film made in the Soviet Union.

Douglas Fairbanks is not the only swashbuckler in the lineup, as John Gilbert plays one in Bardleys the Magnificent, a King Vidor film that had been considered a "lost film" until a short while ago when it was rediscovered and transfered to a digital presentation format; this will be the festival's first time showing one of its programs on anything other than celluloid, as there is no projectable film print available anywhere in the world. Finally, the weekend closes as it opened, with a Lupe Vélez starring role, only this time she plays the title character: Lady of the Pavements, one of D.W. Griffith's last and least-known features today, and said to be reminiscent of German Street Films of the 1920s.

Loyal attendees of the Silent Film Festival will recognize the names of the musicians coming to perform at the festival: Dennis James at the Mighty Wurlitzer, aided by Mark Goldstein providing electronic effects for Aelita (it seems the Wind will also include special sound effects as well; this is no gentle breeze). Pianists Philip Carli (So's Your Old Man), Stephen Horne (Fall of the House of Usher, Underworld and the archive presentation program), and Donald Sosin. Sosin will play for Wild Rose, for the Oswald program (and those who remember how he encouraged a delightful form of audience participation during last year's animation matinee Adventures of Prince Achmed will know that this should be a good match up), and for Lady of the Pavements. For the latter, Sosin's wife Joanna Seaton will provide a vocal performance in the spirit of the film's original 1929 presentation in a part-talkie form. And in addition to the Gaucho, the Mont Alto orchestra will provide scores to Bardleys the Magnificent and Erotikon. Then, two days after the festival ends, in San Rafael, they will perform to Buster Keaton's the Cameraman at an event put on by a wholly different organization, the California Film Institute, who introduced this quintet to Frisco Bay audiences several years before they began playing at the SFSFF.

Yes, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is not the only game in town for fans of watching silent films in a cinema setting with live musical accompaniment; in Fremont, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum has weekly screenings every Saturday of the year except for the weekend of the SFSFF. This weekend is Charlie Chaplin Days in Niles, an excuse for a screening of the Kid as well as a slew of Chaplin shorts at the museum theatre. And on June 26-28 the museum hosts its own three-day film festival, the 12th Annual Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival named for the cowboy star who made Niles the base of operations for his filmmaking nearly 100 years ago. This year the Broncho Billy festival follows last year's centennial commemoration of the Edison Trust with a focus on independent studios that defied the at-the-time majors. Some of these independents became major studios themselves; a program devoted to the beginnings of Paramount opens the festival, and another showcasing early Universal (including a screening of Erich von Stroheim's Foolish Wives) closes it. In between, there are programs devoted to less-remembered companies such as Thanhauser, Ince, and the American Film Company, as well as a program of comedies introduced by "Baby Peggy" herself, and a selection of Frisco Bay-made silents.

And to get everyone involved in the celebration of "independent" filmmaking, not just fans of silent-era film, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum is bringing (gasp!) talkies to its screen on other June evenings; specifically, independently-produced films by modern-day Frisco Bay filmmakers. I have never heard of the Weekend King, shot in Niles and playing this Friday June 5th, and I don't believe I'd ever seen a Scary Cow production before learning the production company would be featured with a screening on June 21st. But I'm very glad that Frisco Bay residents will on Friday June 12th have another shot at seeing the terrific debut feature Around the Bay from Alejandro Adams, who I interviewed on the occasion of its last local cinema screening at last year's Cinequest festival in San Jose. And I'm excited for the opportunity to hear Frisco Bay indie filmmaking legends John Korty and Les Blank present films and clips in a homey, intimate space. Blank's Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers, surely the definitive documentary about Nosferatu's least favorite garnish, is planned to play with the director in person on Friday, June 19th. The screening is not advertised as being in "Smellaround" but neither was the screening held four years ago at the Castro where I swear my nose was sensing delicious aromas before the film was half over. Will we one day talk about "scentless" films like we now talk about "silents"?