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 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.