Monday, July 20, 2009

Adam Hartzell: SF Jewish Film Festival Preview

Adam Hartzell writes on the 29th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival:

There's an oft-repeated story that Bret McKenzie and Jermaine Clement (otherwise known as Flight of the Conchords) were turned down for funding by New Zealand public television because their humor was "Too Wellington". That is, their humor would be missed by everyone outside of the nation's capital. (I've heard this story most often on Radio National New Zealand, their NPR equivalent, but here's a citation of someone else who cites the rumor.) Ironically, it took the U.S., a country that many argue enforces mediocrity by requiring entertainment to be constrained within the confines of what 'Middle America' would find interesting, to see that the world was way more Wellington than New Zealand public television ever realized.

The mistake made by that rumor of an ill-fated bureaucratic choice is that people will have trouble relating to difference. In this way, a mundane mainstream must be reached because too much fringe causes too much confusion. This is why we ended up with so many TV shows and films based in San Francisco where everyone is white and nobody is Gay. J Lo had to be a white wedding planner because everyone knows there ain't no Latinas in San Francisco. But there are media that show the lie to that argument, TV shows and films that demonstrate that people from diverse backgrounds can appreciate stories from experiences other than a white Protestant lens. TV shows from the very beginning of TV like The Goldbergs show the window-sized holes in these arguments.

If you are not now yelling inside your head 'Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg!' after reading that reference, you are like me before seeing Aviva Kempner's documentary Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg. Kempner's documentary is screening at this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (the 29th edition, held from July 23rd through August 10th this year) along with a special screening of a collection of episodes from The Goldbergs TV show. This is all part of Kempner receiving the festival's Freedom of Expression Award for her contribution to Jewish Cinema. I was unaware of Gertrude Berg's pioneering radio, TV, and stage-work and that The Goldbergs was considered the progenitor of the TV sitcom.

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg challenges the belief that people can't relate to backgrounds different from their own by bringing past fans of the show, an African American and a Greek Orthodox American, who found the aspects of Jewish culture portrayed on The Goldbergs transferable to their own lives, their own families. As much as I enjoy this documentary, I do have peccadilloes about the use of stock images in the documentary that are disjointed enough from the narration that they throw me off it. For example, during one narration of a young adult Berg driving in a car with her father, the generic stock footage is of a man driving without a young female passenger in the seat next to him. Perhaps we are supposed to impose an image of Berg into the seat, but without any person in the actual seat, it distracted more than complemented the narration for me. A few seconds later we are meant to impose Berg walking alongside the car with images of no one walking along the side of the car (and too fast for someone to 'walk' along side at that). I know this can be seen as poetic license, asking the viewer to enter the film by filling up the stock image with an image of Berg, but it didn't work for me. Regardless of these moments where the documentary lost me, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg is an otherwise engaging doc that reveals much for both those familiar with Berg's work and those previously ignorant like me.

Victoria Day (David Bezmozgis, Canada, 2009) may pose a similar challenge to folk theories espousing limitations on how much difference audiences, particularly U.S. audiences, can accept. English Canadian films are often discouraged from emphasizing their Canadian locality because such is believed to prohibit opportunities for distribution below the 49th parallel. To even name a film "Victoria Day" implies you've given up on your neighbors to the South. (Although intended to celebrate Queen Victoria's birthday in English-speaking Canada, Victoria Day has been appropriated in cultural practice to note the beginning of summer and, like many holidays, as an excuse to drink. Both appropriations are will utilized in this film.) But there is absolutely no reason why the trials of 16-year-old Ben Spektor can't resonate here in the U.S. Ben is played expertly by Mark Rendell, who will also be a lead character in Year of the Carnivore, the upcoming directorial debut of Sook-yin Lee from the CBC's Definitely Not the Opera. A begrudging effort to assist someone he despises leads him down a road of ambiguous responsibilities. Along the way, we are witness to thankfully non-clichéd portrayals of triads between Ben and his two friends and Ben and his Russian-émigré parents. This is a wonderfully subtle, impactful film.

Let me end where the SFJFF begins, with their opening film Hey Hey It's Esther Blueburger (Cathy Randall, Australia, 2008). I missed an opportunity to see this film during my last trip to Melbourne when it was playing in the Camberwell suburb where I was staying.. And after watching (on DVD) this wonderful film in my apartment in the Richmond District (appropriately enough, a district of San Francisco believed to have been given its name from an Australian who felt it reminded him of his former Melbourne neighborhood of Richmond), I'm so grateful to SFJFF for giving me another chance to see it. The film follows an awkward teenage year of Esther Blueburger. Shunned for her odd behavior by the privileged pack at her private school, she finds herself embraced for such by the rebels at a public school she secretively attends. Interspersed with surreal moments of imagination, this is not an Améliesque romanticism of fantastic whimsy. (Mind you, I love Amélie. But too much romanticism, especially when imposed on youth, can pose problems. For a strong argument against emo-overshare, checkout Craig Shuftan's wonderful new book, and wonderfully titled, Hey Nietzche, Leave Them Kids Alone!, published by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's publishing house. Tricia Rose's The Hip Hop Wars is a powerful companion book to Shuftan's since she presents an equally strong critique of romanticism's doppelganger, nihilism.) Esther, played strikingly well for a young debut by Danielle Catanzariti, battles against the cliques and confinements of teenage life. She eventually makes choices that result in her becoming that which she previously fought against, providing her an opportunity to take the very responsibilities she wished others would take. A slightly atypical coming-of-age film, I found myself embracing this gem from a country whose national cinema has been lacking in the eyes of my Australian friends. (Although everyone is raving about Aboriginal director Warwick Thornton's debut Samson and Delilah, so things could indeed be looking up down under.)

In fact, I found myself tremendously engaged with all three selections I screened prior to the beginning of SFJFF this Thursday. So if these three are any sign of what's on offer for the rest of the selections, this year's SFJFF should be the best I've ever attended.

Thanks Adam! The 29th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival opens at the Castro Theatre this Thursday, July 23rd and stays at that venue for a week. On August 1st, screenings move to the CinéArts theatre in Palo Alto, and to the Roda Theatre in Berkeley. Finally, the festival wraps up at the Jewish Community Center back here in Frisco August 8th and 9th, and at the Rafael in San Rafael August 8-10.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Silent Film Linking, Part Two

My San Francisco Silent Film Festival weekend, Continued from Part One:

After missing most of the morning archival program (described here) and catching Bardelys the Magnificent with the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (profiled in this podcast), it was time to settle in for perhaps the least-known feature in the program.

Wild Rose was directed by Sun Yu, perhaps the most highly-regarded of directors from Shanghai's silent film era, which extended well into the 1930s. Apparently the first Chinese director to have learned about filmmaking in the U.S., several of his films (not Wild Rose) have been released on DVD in the past few years. Still, his is still not exactly a household name, even among silent film buffs. Festival Writers Group members Victoria Jaschob and Aimee Pavy prepared a highly informative program essay and slideshow, respectively, which provided helpful context regarding the conditions in Shanghai under the Kuomintang in 1932, when Wild Rose was made. Most of us in the West have almost no knowledge of the filmmaking of this period, though the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is doing its part to try to rectify this, having now programmed three Chinese features in the past ten years and released the other two in DVD editions as well.

I hope Wild Rose follows the Peach Girl and the Goddess into home video availability. It's quite a lovely blend of 30's-style "realism", romanticism and patriotism, and features dreamy art deco sets and a pair of charismatic leads. The hero is Jin Yan, billed by the festival as a "Rudolf Valentino of China". Jin's widow Qin Yi was brought to the festival and interviewed on-stage by festival advisor Richard Meyer, who has just published a book on the star that includes a more in-depth interview. The female lead, Wang Renmei, is really the film's central character, however. In her excellent festival write-up, Donna Hill likens her to Mary Pickford, which seems pretty accurate. The plot has been summarized handily by Jason Wiener.

From an aesthetic standpoint, Wild Rose bears signs of director Sun's interest in Frank Borzage. Like his film Daybreak (a film I have not yet watched, but that Miriam Bratu Hansen analyzes in the Fall 2000 Film Quarterly), it contains an allusion to Seventh Heaven in the form of a cutaway staircase shot, but there's also something very Borzagean about the relationships between characters. I was reminded of films like No Greater Glory and Three Comrades, both of which were made by Borzage after Wild Rose was completed. The likelihood that the Utah-born auteur was influenced by a Chinese film seems non-existent, and I'd rahter explore the idea that Borzage and Sun were kindred spirits across cultures, than chalk the connections up to coincidence.

Thanks to a much needed early dinner break, I missed the introduction to the next film, Josef Von Sternberg's Underworld. It was given by the Film Noir Foundation's esteemed Eddie Muller, and thankfully it has been transcribed by Michael Guillén at the Evening Class. I also missed the short film shown beforehand, but found a balcony seat just in time for the opening credits of the feature. My second time viewing this gangster film template in 2009, following a Pacific Film Archive screening six months ago, it was reconfirmed as more than just genre archaeology but a stirring, pleasurable film in its own right. Stephen Horne's score was another triumph for the pianist. Horne made appropriate use of jazz-age stylings but perhaps the action scenes were the most memorably accompanied. Generous with tone clusters at the left end of the keyboard, his simulated gunshots resonated in the hall without overwhelming the on-screen excitement. I recall that PFA accompanist Judith Rosenberg also proved her affinity for Sternberg in her music for his silents earlier this year, and I would love to see the Silent Film Festival give her a chance to perform at a grand piano in the Castro one of these years. In the meantime, she'll be taking on Sternberg's debut film the Salvation Hunters again August 16 when it plays as part of the PFA's Treasures From the UCLA Festival of Preservation series.

Stay tuned for part three...

Monday, July 13, 2009

Silent Film Linking, Part One

It's the day after the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and the blogosphere is already filling up with reactions from attendees. Now, to attempt to collect these links and contextualize them within my own experience of the festival. I attended nearly everything, and had a grand time watching films, mingling with friends, and luxuriating in the Castro Theatre. And somehow I find I have the energy to begin a blow-by-blow.

Friday night's opening film was Douglas Fairbanks as the Gaucho, the film in the program I was most familiar with, having seen it multiple times on DVD while preparing the slide show presentation seen on screen as the audience filled the Castro seats, and the 2 1/2 page essay I wrote for the festival's program guide. Of all the many sources I consulted in my research on Fairbanks, there is perhaps none I leaned on more heavily than Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta's biography of the superstar. So it felt particularly fitting for these "silent partners" to introduce The Gaucho (as it is more informally known), as well as give a running commentary track over technicolor outtakes of Mary Pickford's cameo as a Marian apparition screened prior to the feature. Michael Guillén has posted a recap of the duo's introductory remarks, and even excerpts from my essay. Thanks, Michael!

It turns out I was less familiar with the Gaucho than I had thought. Seeing it projected beautifully and grandly on a huge cinema screen revealed details I had overlooked in close study of the DVD. Of all the films in this year's festival, this one must have contained the most shots with multiple threads of action happening simultaneously. The upshot of this is that seeing its images tower above me convinced me that it's an even better, richer film than I had previously judged it to be. I hope the new MOMA print doesn't retire back into the archive for good after this screening; this film deserves to be seen in any theatre where silent film lovers congregate. More reactions to this showing of the Gaucho have been published at six martinis and the seventh art, and at Jason Watches Movies.

This screening of The Gaucho premiered a new score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, which has been a favorite of the SFSFF since 2007. Last year, this quintet performed for the Kid Brother, Harold Lloyd's greatest film. They perform that score again tomorrow night at the Rafael Film Center in Marin, which was the first Frisco Bay venue to bring them in. Their scores are well worth hearing more than once, and if you've never seen the Kid Brother it's an absolute must, deserving to stand with the best of Chaplin and Keaton in the pantheon of silent comedy masterpieces. If you miss that, however, the Kid Brother plays again at the California Theatre in San Jose on July 24th, with Dennis James performing at that venue's sadly-underutilized organ. James also will perform at the California on August 7th for Fairbanks' 1926 swashbuckler the Black Pirate. The rest of the summer weekend at that theatre are devoted to 70mm films (talkies, natch) from the 1960s.

After staying too late at the festival's opening night party, I overslept Saturday and made it to the Castro only in time to catch the very tail end of the free Amazing Tales From the Archives presentation, where I heard Stephen Horne play piano for an Edison short, How the Hungry Man Was Fed. Horne has caused something of a sensation at each of the SFSFF events he has attended, providing knockout accompaniment to often-dark films like a Cottage on Dartmoor, Jujiro, and the Unknown. But when performing for a brief comic piece like this one, I become curious to hear what he'd come up with for a feature-length comedy. Anyone with me?

The next presentation was with the Mont Alto orchestra again, accompanying a long-missing link in King Vidor's oeuvre, Bardelys the Magnificent, previewed by David Jeffers of the SIFFblog. A fine action picture with noteworthy photography, including a vertigo-inducing fall from a balcony, the presentation was notable for two main reasons: it was the West Coast debut of a title that had been considered a "lost film" for decades, and it was the festival's first experiment in screening a feature in DigiBeta rather than 35mm. With no-one willing to assume responsibility for the cost of transferring the recently re-discovered print to 35mm, the "film" is only viewable in digital form. Again, Michael Guillén has details from David Shepard's introduction. The image looked clean if somewhat contrastry on that screen. Vidor's vision may have been suggested, but I for one was unable to forget that I was watching through a layer of technological remove. SFSFF acting artistic director Anita Monga makes a great point about the difference between DVD and 35mm screenings in this recent sf360 interview:

Just because I have a postcard of the Vermeer’s "The Milkmaid" doesn’t make me not want to see it in at the Rijksmuseum. Au contraire, it whets my appetite.
I hope that enough appetites are whetted by the digital screenings and DVD release of Bardleys the Magnificent that the powers that be determine that there's sufficient demand to justify the cost of returning the picture to its celluloid magnificence.

Here's Part Two

Friday, July 10, 2009

Adam Hartzell: Plaza of the Pavements

Brian here. Some months make me remember why I call this blog "Hell on Frisco Bay". June was a busy, stressful month for me, mostly outside the world of moviegoing, and so far July has been less stressful but even busier. Clearly, one of the things that has gone by the wayside in this time has been my ability to maintain this blog as a reliable and timely pointer to the myriad of terrific film events happening here on Frisco Bay. I'm keeping a better log of the latest local film screening announcements on my Twitter Stream, and you don't even have to register for anything to read it. But my time and energy for writing longer pieces for this site seems to be temporarily at a low ebb, even as practically every venue on my sidebar has a summer schedule well worth blogging about, even on-again, off-again cinemas like the Paramount in Oakland and the California in San Jose. Click the links to the right of this text and see.

Of course, the Silent Film Festival is opening this evening, and I am pleased to have a pass, some time off from work, and hopefully the stamina to see every program like I did last year. I certainly have the enthusiasm, built up over the past few months thanks to my connection with the festival, explained here. More previews of the festival are popping up everywhere, from authors such as Richard Von Busack, Thomas Gladysz, Carl Martin, Dennis Harvey and Michael Hawley.

Another preview of the festival films here at Hell On Frisco Bay seems extraneous. Which is why I'm also filled with enthusiasm to publish this piece by my good friend Adam Hartzell, on the 17th Street Plaza, which ought to enhance this year's festival experience as it lies mere inches from the line into the Castro Theatre that snakes around the corner of Castro and 17th Streets. Fascinatingly, this reclamation of space from motorized vehicle traffic is connected to the era during which silent films had their heyday. After reading, you may find the connections Adam makes resonating with your viewing of the masterful Underworld, with its depictions of police officers and getaway cars, or of So's Your Old Man, in which W.C. Fields plays an inventor of an automobile part. Adam will explain:

In spite of the fact that we sit in a theatre, often reclining in a fairly comfy chair, for many film-goers, cinema is not a passive activity. Hence the needs for a term like ‘film-goer’ which illuminates the more active process of watching cinema. Many of us prepare for the films we seek by reading about them or engaging in conversations about the films, either face to face with friends or in the comments section on blogs like these. Following the screening, we return to those spaces, the text on a page of a blog or the face of a friend, in order to sort out what we just actively saw.

This year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival (running from July 10th through the 12th) allows for a unique opportunity for examining active cinema. If you can’t make it to Pordenone, Italy, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is the second best stop for those who find silent film as invigorating as any talkie. In this way, the Silent Film Festival is a festival acted upon by cinema-goers. And when this season’s patrons seek to break their silence inside the theatre and talk about the film outside the theatre, they have a new space in which to have that conversation.

As usual, the Silent Film Festival will be taking place at the cinematic temple that is the Castro Theatre. But this year, halfway up the block where 17th street nudges between Castro and Market Street, is the recently established "17th Street Plaza" (an alternate name for it is "Castro Commons"), a retrofitting of a street into a pedestrian plaza where people can cross at their leisure, as well as sit, talk, read, watch, and eat. Taking a cue from the long term plans of New York City to transforms spaces such as Times Square into pedestrian paradises, San Francisco’s Pavement to Parks project states on its website that it "...seeks to temporarily reclaim unused swathes and quickly and inexpensively turn them into new public plazas and parks."

I must disagree with San Francisco Pavement to Parks (SFP2P) referring to these spaces as 'unused'. In actuality, they are indeed 'used', just not as the modern day city planner intended them to be. To the city planner, spaces like where 17th meets Castro and Market are supposed to be streets. In our present day, this means a public space where cars are privileged and pedestrians are corralled into the crosswalk if permitted to cross at all. But SFP2P has taken note of how San Franciscans have been re-thinking certain urban spaces, where pedestrians have re-oriented streets from their previous plans, where cars have discarded these thoroughfares from their choice of options. The area where 17th meets Castro and Market was an area dominated by pedestrians, an epicenter of the queer geography that, roughly 50 years ago, began re-mapping Eureka Valley into the gay enclave we now know as the Castro. It is at this ambivalent intersection where pedestrian confidence has been so pronounced that cars began to use the street less and less. Seeing that the pedestrians had made the street theirs, SFP2P made what was unofficial official and inaugurated the Pavement to Parks projects with the 17th Street Plaza. Now we have a space where people can sit, people can wonder, with only occasionally having to be aware of the launching of another inbound run of the nostalgic beauty that is the F Market Street Railway fleet.

Part of what I've found to be a problem with some of the film festivals in San Francisco is that they haven’t had have a place to fall out of the theatre. The Castro Theatre’s outside atrium crowds up quickly, leaving some of us feeling a need to get out of the right-of-way of the pedestrians, disrupting the flow of conversation for the ease of pedestrian flow. Out-of-town festivals I’ve been to, such as The Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy or the Woman’s Film Festival in Seoul, have a public space at the ready for those who wish to carry their film-fueled conversations outside of the cramped spaces of the lobby without having to worry about moving along.

So this year I’m curious what the 17th Street Plaza will add to the already wonderful experience of the SF Silent Film Festival. How will the patrons appropriate this space? Will it be used as a space for cross-town friends to meet before queuing up for a screening? Will it be used as an impromptu lecture hall where signifying gestures will reveal ones thoughts, from the apathetic shrug of the shoulders to the full arm wailing rant or rave? Will it provide a space for kids to run around before or after the family-friendly fare on offer? (This year it’s Disney’s Oswald The Lucky Rabbit) Will it be a place to sip coffee from The Cheeseboard in order to stay alert for the next screening, or nosh on a bagel from Posh Bagel so one isn’t distracted by ones stomach growling? Or will it be a resting space for the lonely cinephile to reflect on where in their personal canon they will place what they’ve just seen?

What’s particularly poignant about the 17th Street Plaza placement outside the Silent Film Festival is what was going on in the U.S. at the time some of these films were initially screened, how cars were beginning to claim manifest destiny of city streets. Cars and streets have become so synonymous in our mental frames that the real history of streets as contested spaces between pedestrians and cars has been forgotten. It took University of Virginia’s Peter D. Norton to excavate that history for me. In his informative book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City (The MIT Press, 2008), he reveals a surprising history of "bloody and sometimes violent revolution" that took place on city streets before they became the sole domain of automobiles in the 1930’s. Although we expect downtown businesses to resist plans to de-car Market Street, accepting their beliefs that such would adversely affect their profits in spite of recent studies demonstrating exactly the opposite, in the 10's and 20's of the 20th century, businesses were not fans of the automobile. Nor were police, since it often fell on them to direct traffic, and even the emerging field of traffic engineers initially found cars to be more a nuisance than a convenience. (Consider this quote underscoring the pedestrian’s traditional rights to the streets from a New York City judge in 1923, "Nobody has any inherent right to run an automobile at all." Such sounds like sacrilege, if not ludicrous, today.) The Progressive Movement of the late 19th and early 20th century that led to the necessary safety regulations in industry and the unnecessary prohibition of alcohol, also sought to severely restrict cars from acting like they had any claim to city streets. (Symbolic measures taken were monuments for children killed by automobiles erected in major cities like Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. Along with photos of these monuments, Norton also includes propaganda fliers denouncing 'motordom', as the automotive industry was often referred to at the time, as basically child-killers.) It wasn’t until the automobile industry metaphorically connected the automobile with the concept of 'freedom' that our streets were envisioned as first and foremost for the car, placing responsibilities upon pedestrians (looking both ways, children not playing in the street, etc) that were never imposed upon pedestrians before. As Norton notes, "jaywalking", began as a term for people who blocked pedestrians from their right of way! Now the term, thanks to the efforts of the Boy Scouts and public safety week campaigns suggests a pedestrian is overstepping boundaries. (In our very own San Francisco in 1920, a safety campaign was implemented where jaywalkers were pulled from the street and immediately forced to face mock outdoor trials in order to teach them to feel shame about an activity that was, at the time, perfectly normal.)

Now as we begin the 21st century, the pedestrian is joining the critical mass cyclist in reclaiming the streets for active transport. As a result, cities have also begun a process of rethinking city streets. This is a result of the environmental concerns we were unaware of in the early part of the 20th century, the health benefits addressed by engaging in more active forms of transport, and the sociological needs to reconnect after suburbanization and digital technology increasingly isolate us from one another. We don’t want the bloody revolution Norton notes from our past. And SFP2P has taken care to lessen the possibility of conflicts between modern day motordom and pedestrians. In re-visioning spaces, they have thought ahead about possible obstacles. For example, concern about complaints of parking space loss led to SFP2P implementing an increase in parking around the upcoming "Guerrero Park" project. With The 14th Annual Silent Film Festival being the inaugural silent film festival for the 17th Street Plaza, here’s hoping this represents a roundabout where a significant portion of our city streets will return to the pedestrian promenades they were at the heyday of silent film.

Thanks Adam! Hopefully the discussion of the festival, and of the relationship between pedestrians and automobiles, will spill into the streets, and into the following comments section!