Friday, December 31, 2010

Start Your New Year Right

"The tendency to watch movies on the small screen...makes for a changed experience of the movie no longer as a world that takes us over but one we peer into and catch glimpses of." -- Gilberto Perez, The Material Ghost, 1998
As the last hours of 2010 fly past, I find myself wondering what the purpose of all the year-end recapitulation that dominates the media for much of December can be. I participate in it myself, having submitted a "best films of 2010" list and a set of reflective quotes to the sf360 website. I'm also preparing my annual multi-participant survey of the year in Frisco Bay repertory/revival screenings, which you can expect to see on this site by mid-January.

Surely the main reason to reflect on a year as it passes into history is to hope the process helps us learn something we can apply to the year to come. One of the lessons I hope I've learned over the past year is that I cannot expect many of my friends to follow my example and regularly take advantage of the panopoly of filmgoing options we all have before us in this town, and that blogging or tweeting about screenings I'm anticipating is not going to create enough intertia to get people out of the habit of watching all their movies from the comfort and convenience of home. If I want the people I care about to share my appreciation of big-screen movie-watching, I should specifically invite them along on my expeditions into the cinematic wilderness, where they're certain to relish an experience they hadn't consciously realized they'd been missing.

Last week I organized a group outing to Japantown's VIZ Cinema to view a great 35mm print of Akira Kurosawa's 1963 masterpiece High And Low. Most of the people I brought had never before seen this still-underappreciated kidnapper vs. detective saga, or had never been to the VIZ, or both. I don't think there was a single attendee who regretted a single dollar of the admission price, or a single minute of this extremely compelling thriller. The first hour and a half or so of the film is simply unimpeachable, especially when its wide Tohoscope images are displayed on an immersive screen.

Like the Bridge and the Red Vic, the VIZ Cinema was M.I.A. from Jonathan Kiefer's list of San Francisco's remaining single-screen theatres found in his relatively-recent, otherwise-worthy SF Weekly article on the uncertain fate of Landmark's Clay. Most people I talk to about the VIZ have never heard of it, even if they're fans of Japanese filmmakers and have visited the mall in which it is located. And while attending the venue for dozens of screenings in 2010 (only the Pacific Film Archive and the Castro attracted me more often) I don't think I've ever seen it more than half-full. Thus, it was with sadness but no surprise that I reacted to news from a ticketseller that the venue would be ceasing daily operations early next year. The coming week provides opportunities to catch the end of the Kurosawa-Toshiro Mifune series, including the Seven Samurai (January 2nd only), Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, and two final showings of High And Low (Jan. 3 & 6), but the theatre then closes for ten days of maintenance, and I don't think we should expect it to continue programming films much beyond its late-month digital screenings of the anime Evangelion 1.0 and Evangelion 2.0.

Though the VIZ is shuttering its screen after only a year and a half in operation, the Red Vic has surivived thirty years on Haight Street only to find itself in imminent danger of closing down as well, as this article brought to the surface. As I mentioned at sf360, the Red Vic was the first place where I ever bought a ticket to a repertory film back in the mid-1990s (it may have been Blade Runner but I can't be certain). It's still the only theatre in town with solar panels, wooden (that means reuseable, washable) popcorn bowls, seven-dollar Tuesdays, a cozy combination of movie seats and loveseat-like benches, and the most entertaining "no smoking in the theatre" trailer this side of John Waters. It also has its own unique approach to film programming, playing a recent art-house freakout like Enter the Void in the same month as a Hollywood classic like Breakfast At Tiffany's (Blake Edwards R.I.P.), and letting Godard's astonishing Every Man For Himself rub shoulders with Steve Martin in The Jerk for the first time since the early eighties (if not ever!)

Any trips to the Red Vic are going to help put the theatre closer to black, but two official benefits are scheduled on the Red Vic's February calendar: a February 12 program of politically-minded underground films Bold Native and All Power To The People (a documentary on the Black Panther Party) and a February 24th multi-media event celebrating San Francisco movie theatre history, presented by Rebecca Solnit, Christian Bruno, Sam Green, Chip Lord and Julie Lindow. If you didn't get Lindow's book documenting this history, Left In The Dark, as a holiday gift, it's certainly an apropos time to buy it for yourself.

I'm equally excited about the Film On Film Foundation's also-beneficial rental of the theatre for a "tripple" bill of Gumby: The Movie, The Adventures Of Mark Twain and Peter Jackson's debut Meet The Feebles. Perhaps improbably, the only one of these I've seen before, years ago, is the Adventures of Mark Twain, a feature-length Will Vinton Claymation that absolutely enchanted me when I was a jaded teenager. (The top image in this post is from the film.) I cannot wait to see it on the big screen and to bring some of my most jaded friends along for the ride.

Advertising campaigns help film festivals and new releases attract audiences. This is why, when the Castro hasn't been four-walled by German Gems or Sketchfest or Noir City or the Silent Film Festival, that venue seems to prefer showing a mediocre (at best, imho) "re-bake" like Tron: Legacy than the kind of programming its staff excels at, but that can be a risky draw for customers, like last year's Samuel Goldwyn tribute or its upcoming set of Alfred Hitchcock's less culturally-canonized films. Sadly, repertory film is threatening to die out in this town, as it has in so many others, and the troubles of the VIZ and the Red Vic are merely the latest symptoms. There's still a great scene to be pieced together if you're willing to put in the effort of calendar-tracking (and if you regularly read my blog, you probably are). What's lacking in San Francisco is a single cinema where every day is a blast from the past. In lieu of that, most minds turn toward the home viewing option when in the mood for a movie released anytime earlier than last month.

I don't know if there's realistically a way to reverse this trend. If all the Netflix subscribers who canceled their accounts in favor of a free service like the public library, used the money saved to visit a theater for a movie or two per month that they otherwise wouldn't have gone to, places like the Red Vic might thrive. I'm not much of one for New Year's Resolutions, but in 2011, I hope to share more of my favorite films and theatres with friends and acquaintences that I don't normally see at the movies. Why didn't I think of this before?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Season of Light

It's truly Winter on Frisco Bay now, with temperatures to prove it. What better time to spend inside a movie theatre, being warmed by the heat of artistic achievement? Though it may be tougher to find time for culture in a December packed with holiday parties and shopping trips, the potential psychological and, dare I say, spiritual rewards, of seeing a good or great movie seem to be ramped up at this time of year. Why else do so many film companies release so many of the films they think will resonate with adult audiences during this season? (So they can position their films for critics' top tens and Academy Awards, you say? Don't be such a Scrooge!) This week Frisco Bay hosts at least two screenings likely to have a profound mood-altering effect on religious and secular cinephiles alike. I mentioned both in my last post but they're worth repeating. There's Thursday's screening of Carl Dreyer's 1928 The Passion of Joan Of Arc at the glorious Paramount, with a 22-piece orchestra and full chorus performing Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light composition as underscore. Seeing the trial of the Maid of Orleans enacted (almost entirely in facial close-ups) on such a large screen with such glorious music accompanying is likely to be the cultural highlight of the month (if not year) for anyone no matter what their religious affiliation, or lack thereof. Then on Saturday the Rafael Film Center screens Apichatpong Weerasethakul's very spiritually-attuned new film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives as part of a week-long International Buddhist Film Festival Showcase.

I haven't seen any of the other selections in the Rafael program of Buddhist-themed films (though I should note that the documentary Saint Misbehavin': the Wavy Gravy Movie will begin a week-long engagement at the Red Vic this Friday, before it screens at the Rafael on Sunday), but I have previewed DVD screener copies of two hour-long films playing together as part of the International Buddhist Film Festival's December 9-19 stint at the Yerba Buena Center For The Arts. Titled The Inland Sea and Dream Window: Reflections on the Japanese Garden, these two Nipponophile documentaries from the early 1990s will be presented in rare 35mm prints, and the cinematographer for The Inland Sea, Hiro Narita (who also shot Never Cry Wolf and La Mission among many other titles) will be present at the films' December 12 pairing.

The Inland Sea ties nicely into the Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives screening because the latter film's director Apichatpong has reportedly been planning to follow his Cannes prize-winning film with a project on Donald Richie, who narrates and briefly appears in The Inland Sea, quite appropriately since he wrote the 1971 travel memoir upon which it was based. Richie is of course best known to cinephiles for his writings on Japanese film, but in fact his writing on the country he's lived in since the late 1940s investigates more than just its cinema. The Inland Sea, both in book and film form, seeks a traditional Japan fading from view in the latter part of the 20th century, by journeying between the coastal towns bordering the Seto Inland Sea that separates the islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. One gets a good sense of the subject and tone of the documentary from Vincent Canby's New York Times review from 1991. But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film is how it straddles the line between time capsule and period piece. Richie wrote the following for a 1993 reprinting of the memoir:

It has now been over twenty years since The Inland Sea was first published, and nearly thirty since I began the journals on which it is based. During this time the area has much changed. Last year, when the book was made into a film, the crew could no longer follow all of my original route since large portions of it were now unrecognizably developed.

Yet, they discovered that by jumping one island over, as it were, they could parallel my journey of three decades before; they could find places where, mirroring the words of my text, the past had not vanished, not quite. The Inland Sea I wrote about yet exists--it is there, if you know where to look.
I do wonder if the same could be said today, now that nearly another twenty years have passed.

Both The Inland Sea and suitably titled Dream Window: Reflections On The Japanese Garden are enriched by a musical score from 20th century Japan's arguably greatest composer, Toru Takemitsu, who wrote music for films by Nagisa Oshima, Masaki Kobayashi, Masahiro Shinoda, Shohei Imamura, Akira Kurosawa (though not for any of the Kurosawa/Toshiro Mifune collaborations, like the seven playing the VIZ over the holidays), and many other directors before his 1996 death. His contribution to Dream Window is much stronger than to The Inland Sea, however. Not only is there more music, featured more prominently, but Takemitsu is interviewed on camera, and even the title Dream Window was taken from the title of one of his serialist compositions. Any Takemitsu fan should consider this film a must-watch; it's especially enlightening to be able to hear the man speak about the affinity he feels between music composition and gardens, and then hear a passage from one of his Messaien-influenced pieces, while an image from the garden at Sai-Hochi appears on screen.

Perhaps Toru Takemitsu's most fruitful if not frequent composer/director relationship was the one he had with Hiroshi Teshigahara, director of Woman In The Dunes, Antonio Gaudí, and Rikyu as well as other films Takmitsu scored. Teshigahara, too, appears prominently in Dream Window: Reflections On The Japanese Garden, not in the role of film director but as grand master of his father's Sogetsu school of Ikebana (flower arranging), and as a budding outdoor garden designer as well. Since the documentary was released between Teshigahara's final two films Rikyu and Basara: Princess Goh, the only two jidai-geki (period films) the multitalented artist made in his career, it's particularly interesting to hear him advise, "we have to think of what we can create for today's world. It would be pointless just to copy what went before."

Ultimately both The Inland Sea and Dream Window are likely to be satisfying viewing for anyone with a natural interest in Japanese culture, with added excitement for cinephiles curious to see legendary figures associated with Japanese cinema (Richie, Takemitsu, Teshigahara) speaking of matters separate from their involvement in film. They certainly make sense paired together (perhaps this was first done in a 1993 issue of the Buddhism journal Tricycle) by the International Buddhist Film Festival. Though neither film addresses Buddhism in a sustained and direct way (Shintoism is in fact more prominently dealt with in The Inland Sea), they both invite a kind of contemplative observational style that may appeal to Buddhist viewers, especially those who remember that the festival programmed Thomas Riedelsheimer's documentary on artist Andy Goldsworthy Rivers And Tides at a previous event. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Riedelsheimer had encountered Dream Window in particular before developing the rhythms he employed in that film.

Before I sign off, let me point out that Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is equally devoted to the sacred and the profane in December, as in addition to their Buddhist film series, the venue is also hosting a devious horror film series called Go To Hell For the Holidays From December 2-18. Dennis Harvey has previewed most of the titles, including Wolf Creek (the Australian film that was released on Christmas Day 2005 in the US). The only selection I've seen myself is the Thai film about the cannibalistic-minded noodle vendor, The Meat Grinder. I'll simply say it was just as gory and twice as atmospheric as I expected it to be.

Friday, October 22, 2010


If quantity is a measure of riches we live in a Golden Age of film festivals. According to Mark Cousins, writing in last year's Film Festival Yearbook 1: the Festival Circuit, "the film festival regulation body FIAPF (Federation Internationale des Associations de Producteurs de Film) reckons there are 700 of them in total, the New York Times reckons there are over 1,000. The numbers have rocketed in the last decade." Knowing how many film festivals occur here over the course of a year, and how many other places in the world are increasing their own film festival counts, both the FIAPF and NYT numbers seem grossly outdated or otherwise underrepresentative. It seems I learn about a new festival somewhere in the world at least once or twice a month, and I'm not necessarily pricking my ears for such news (most recently I learned of new festivals in Luang Prabang, Laos and Oaxaca, Mexico), unless it concerns festivals sprouting here on Frisco Bay.

And sprout they do, in defiance of advice from protectors of cinema like Simon Field and James Quandt, who in an interview in another recent publication in the new field of film festival studies, dekalog 3: On Film Festivals, agree that "generally...festivals should be in anonymous cities with few distractions," something that San Francisco has never been accused of being. The many local film festivals (I count at least eighteen occurring here right now, or in the next six weeks, alone!) often interact with these "distractions" by involving them- integrating cinema screenings with live music performances, museum exhibits, book readings, etc. Perhaps most of the festivals that occur here don't qualify under the criteria Field and Quandt had in mind during that moment of their interview, as unlike a Cannes or a Sundance, they generally don't compete for red carpet world premieres of the most critically and/or commercially anticipated films on the calendar, functioning as glittery news events with the entire world of cinephilia eagerly observing from afar. Instead, they exist as one form or another of "audience festival", that is, the kind of festival that exists in order to provide paying audiences with opportunities to see films and meet filmmakers they otherwise would not be able to see or meet. As long as there are audiences looking for films they wouldn't ordinarily run across at the multiplex or elsewhere, these audience festivals will remain an important matching service.

Currently running are the 14th Annual Arab Film Festival, the 9th San Francisco Documentary Festival, the 17th Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival, the 34th(!!) Marin County Italian Film Festival, and the Artists' Television Access Film and Video Festival, which ends tonight with Kerry Laitala's dazzling Afterimage: the Flicker of Life. Opening tonight are the Petaluma International Film Festival, the United Nations Association Film Festival in Palo Alto, and here in Frisco proper, the Berlin & Beyond festival of German-language films, previewed extensively at the Evening Class this year as it moves to October from its traditional slot in January, and the first of four geographically-centered showcases being put on by the San Francisco Film Society, Taiwan Film Days.

After shining its key light on Taiwan, the SFFS brings French Cinema Now to the Embarcadero Cinema October 28-November 3, closing with two screenings of the eagerly-awaited new film from Abbas Kiarostami, Certified Copy. Then they turn attention to locally-produced filmmaking at Cinema By The Bay at the Roxie November 5-8; this event marks the first time any motion picture by the South Bay's Alejandro Adams, in this case his recent Babnik, will be publicly screened here in San Francisco. New Italian Cinema is the Film Society's longest-standing autumn companion to its San Francisco International Film Festival in April, and it runs at the Embarcadero on November 14-21, right on the heels of a methodologically-, rather than geographically-organized event, the SF International Animation Festival.

The 3rd i South Asian International Film Festival runs November 3-7 and includes a Castro Theatre 35mm screening of the Bimal Roy classic Madhumati (pictured in the topmost image in this post), featuring a screenplay by Ritwik Ghatak. Then on November 5-13 there's the American Indian Film Festival, the longest-running such showcase of its kind and one that is frequently overlooked by local cinephiles (including myself- I regretfully have never been). Frank Lee brings his Chinese American Film Festival back to the 4-Star Theatre November 17-23. That does it for festivals within the San Francisco city limits, for now. More are certain to be announced in the coming weeks, so check my sidebar or my twitter feed, both of which I update more frequently than I actually post.

Upcoming festivals I'm aware of coming to other Frisco Bay counties include the Poppy Jaspar Short Film Festival November 12-14, and the return of the prodigal International Buddhist Film Festival to the region after a five-year absence. It lands at the Rafael Film Center in Marin (which incidentally just played host to the 33rd Mill Valley Film Festival), and it includes the Frisco Bay premiere of one of the most talked-about films of the current year, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives, which won the top prize at the last Cannes Film Festival. I was lucky to be able to see the film at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, but as a confirmed Apichatpong fan, there's no question whether or not I want to see it again as soon as I can. The Rafael's website is promoting this screening as the "US West Coast premiere", though it's placement in Los Angeles's AFI Fest contradicts that claim. Nonetheless, I'm excited that the Buddhist Film Festival is likely to bring attention to the film from outside the usual cinephile quarters. The festival will also have a stint at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts here in Frisco December 9-19, but there's no word yet on which titles will be available at that venue as well.


That's a lot of festivals, but of course festivals make up only a part of what makes Frisco Bay such a special place for cinema-going. There's also theatrical releases of films that don't always get a fair shake in other markets, and a strong repertory film scene. Some highlights from the latter:

The Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto has revealed its programming plans for the rest of 2010; it's a typically strong set of Hollywood classics of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, featuring a diverse set of actors and directors. This season they're holding a special focus on films noir; the most popular of revived genres blackens the Stanford screen with double-bills every Thursday and Friday until December 10th. There's also a few noirs scattered into the Saturday through Monday programs, including a December 4-6 stand of Eddie Muller's favorite noir In A Lonely Place. Outside the noir line-up I'd heartily recommend the November 6-8 pairing of two of my favorite, sometime overlooked Preston Sturges comedies the Great McGinty and Hail the Conquering Hero, and the December 16-17 placement of two films (Charulata and Mahanagar) from one of the few foreign-language filmmakers the Stanford favors, India's Satyajit Ray.

The Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley also has a brand new calendar to show off; it includes continuations of its recent big series on Italian Neorealism and Bay Area Alternative Film & Video. These are joined by: a Burt Lancaster series that provides big-screen opportunities to see the hunky star as directed by Carol Reed, Jules Dassin, John Cassavetes, Frank Perry, and others. By a weekend with Kelly Reichardt in conversation with critic B. Ruby Rich, which allows us to catch up with her entire filmography in preparation for the eventual (who knows quite when, as of yet) Frisco Bay release of her stellar Meek's Cutoff, another film I was able to catch in Toronto. And by rare screenings of the legendary Flaming Creatures, of Every Man For Himself (for my money Jean-Luc Godard's best film from the last 35 years), and more. But for many cinephiles the pièce de résistance of the PFA's November-December calendar will be the all-but-complete Carl Theodor Dreyer retrospective including a PFA-presented screening of the Passion of Joan of Arc in Frisco Bay's grandest movie palace, the Paramount. All of Dreyer's other silent films will be shown at the PFA with Judith Rosenberg accompanying on piano. Six of his sound films with screen there too, joined by two films he did not direct but which he certainly affected in a major way; Lars Von Trier's 1987 television work Medea, made from a previously unrealized Dreyer script, and the Passion Of Joan of Arc-inspired Vivre Sa Vie (for my money Jean-Luc Godard's best film, period.)

Between the PFA's Dreyer series, its December 5 screening of Rossellini's Voyage in Italy, and the Ozu films recently brought to the VIZ Cinema (as i mentioned in my previous post), nearly all of the film titles mentioned in Nathaniel Dorsky's slender but splendid book Devotional Cinema will have screened in a Frisco Bay cinema this year. Just in time for an SFMOMA showing of Dorsky's four most recent films (the same four that played last month in Toronto to great acclaim) on December 16th. The rest of 2010 at the musuem provides only a few other opportunities for film viewing there, but each of these few seems worth taking. Next Thursday's double-bill of witch films by George Romero and Dario Argento is the ideal way to cinematically ring in Hallowe'en, especially for only $3 per ticket. Christmas holidays get more obliquely celebrated with a pair of Red & White-themed screenings of French films directed by Albert Lamorisse and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. I'm not sure what holiday the November 18 SFMOMA program Bay Area Ecstatic might be observing, if any, but it promises to be one of the most compelling of the season. I say this not because the films were selected by my friend Brecht Andersch, with whom I've been collaborating on an investigation of Christoper Maclaine's seminal The End (have you seen the latest installment of our project yet?), but because he's selected some great and/or rarely seen films. Perhaps my favorite Kenneth Anger film Invocation of My Demon Brother and perhaps my favorite Bruce Conner film Looking For Mushrooms (contrary to prior expectations, the superior short version which prompted a correspondence between Conner and John Lennon will be screened) will be joined by Larry Jordan's mysterious Triptych In Four Parts and Timoleon Wilkins's The Crossing, which I've only seen once apiece, and four other films I've never seen at all. Mark your calendars and tell your friends!

A number of first-run theatres have realized that an occasional repertory film on their program adds visibility to their venue, and may even be able to turn a profit on its own merit. The Cerrito, the Alameda Theatre and the UA Berkeley have evening screenings; I recently attended Luc Besson's the Professional at the latter, and though I didn't much like the film, I was impressed with the size of the audience for a 35mm print of a 1994 action movie on a Thursday night. Other theatres opt for the midnight movie route; Camera Cinemas in the South Bay has a midnight series I was just recently made aware of, and of course the Rocky Horror Picture Show couldn't celebrate its 35th Halloween without screenings in local Landmark Theatres this weekend and next. And the Piedmont Theatre in Oakland has just jumped on board the modern midnight movie phenomenon the Room, now showing there every third Saturday of the month.

Of course the first Frisco Bay venue to host regular screenings of the Room was the Red Vic, which still plays the bizarre cult object on the last Saturday of every month, including October 30th. Come in costume (you can do better than Patton Oswalt can't you?) The Red Vic has a new calendar out too. Zombie action movie Planet Terror plays Halloween and the day after. This is the first time I've noticed a theatrical booking for the Robert Rodriguez half of Grindhouse on its own- his latest film Machete, which germinated in that 2007 extravaganza, plays Dec. 10-11. Werner Herzog's Aguirre: Wrath of God seems an ideal way to end Thanksgiving weekend. And the second half of December becomes almost pure repertory, with screenings of Breathless, Triplets of Belleville, the Seven Samurai, and more.

The Roxie celebrates Halloween with three events: a double bill of 1950s horror/sci-fi October 29, another double-bill the next day featuring archive prints of David Cronenberg's the Brood and the Hammer studio's Corruption, and a third on Halloween night consisting of two films by director Alex Cox -- who will be present at the screenings! (and at the Rafael Film Center the following night). November 19 at the Roxie brings a "punk rock double bill" of the extremely rare Surf II and Times Square. There's also an intriguing animation showcase November 19-25, and on November 20th, a trio of After-School Specials presented by Jesse Ficks of MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS.

Ficks also has events upcoming at his usual venue, the Castro Theatre, again on Halloween where he brings an afternoon matinee of Creepy Disney films. He's also engineered a five-film marathon of robot movies November 20th. The Castro's in-house programming staff have scheduled a Ray Bradbury adaptation double-bill October 29th. They've also brought back Club Foot Orchestra to play live scores to silent movies on November 14th- when I attended their performance of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu a couple years ago, the inventiveness of their music almost made up for the fact that they sourced their images from truly lousy digital prints. Here's hoping for a better presentation this time around. I'm more (cautiously) optimistic about the San Francisco Film Society's December 14 pairing of a silent film I've never seen before (Mauritz Stiller's Sir Arne's Treasure) with a musical act I first saw perform in a quiet coffeehouse in 1996, the Mountain Goats. It's hard to imagine how such a lyric-focused musician as Mountain Goats frontman John Darnelle will translate his musical skills which work so well in an intimate venue (whether a coffeehouse or a small nightclub like the Independent) to the grand Castro stage, working in concert with a reputed masterpiece like Sir Arne's Treasure. Which is why I just have to see and hear it for myself!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Setsuko Hara

The VIZ Cinema at Post & Webster is, this week only, screening four of the six films directed by Yasujiro Ozu that feature one of the greatest living movie stars of all time, Setsuko Hara. Beginning her career in the 1930s at the dawn of the Japanese talking picture, in 1953 she played the faithful "Noriko" in Tokyo Story, and she retired ten years later after a career of more than 100 films. (Her reclusiveness in the 47 years since was an inspiration for the late Satoshi Kon's visually stunning animated film Millenium Actress).

The four Setsuko Hara films VIZ is bringing include one of Ozu's greatest masterpieces Late Spring from 1949, his 1951 Early Summer (parts 1 & 2 in the so-called "Noriko trilogy"), his atypcially noir-ish Tokyo Twilight from 1957, and my own favorite of his color films, Late Autumn, from which the above screen capture was taken. It plays this afternoon at 12:30, tomorrow at 6:00 PM, and Monday at 4:30.

An almost-equally tantalizing program of films by Kenji Mizoguchi, featuring his frequent leading lady Kinuyo Tanaka, happens at the VIZ later this month.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The End of History, Geography, Cinematography...

San Francisco moviegoers, as a rule, love to see their city on screen. Many of us especially enjoy seeing how our streets, shops, and landmarks were captured by filmmakers of bygone eras. Even a glimpse of the stock-footage skyline in a Hollywood studio-shot film like John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon will usually earn a cheer from the assembled crowd when projected on a local theatre screen. At the last edition of Noir City, the double-bill of Frisco-set noirs (Red Light and Walk A Crooked Mile) was almost undoubtedly the weakest pairing of the festival, but it packed the Castro Theatre more thoroughly than perhaps any other program in the series. There’s something about seeing “Old San Francisco”, whether in a great film like Vertigo or Greed, or in a lesser one like House on Telegraph Hill or It Came From Beneath the Sea, that connects us to our collective histories, and many of us frequently seek that kind of connection.

All but the most devoted scholar of Frisco Bay film locations is certain to discover unseen camera perspectives on the region’s past by attending shows in the Radical Light series of independent films, both canonical and obscure, that dominates SF Cinematheque’s fall calendar. So far, in the first three screenings in the series (held at the Pacific Film Archive, at SFMOMA, and in an elementary school’s redwood grove in Canyon, California), we’ve seen Market Street in 1906, North Beach ca. 1958, the Emeryville mudflat ca. 1981, Richmond railyards ca. 1966, Transbay Terminal ca. 1961, Mission Creek ca. 1990, and much more, thanks to filmmakers like the Miles Brothers, Dion Vigne, Chris Marker, Bruce Baillie, Dominic Angerame, etc.

Tonight at 7:30 the Pacific Film Archive kicks off four successive Wednesday evening Radical Light screenings that take a chronological approach to Frisco Bay experimental filmmaking. Those of us lucky enough to attend will see a deep-sea diver dragged onto Ocean Beach in the Lead Shoes tonight. We’ll see a Frisco Bay trash dump accompanied to the music of Carl Orff and the poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti in Have You Sold Your Dozen Roses on October 6th. We’ll see an S.F. Mime Troupe-inspired farce enacted all over town in Oh Dem Watermelons on October 13th. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; in addition to all the other films in these four programs, the chronological screenings are supplemented by thematically-curated programs on October 16-17 and a book launch party October 15th.

I'm particularly excited that tonight’s screening includes Christopher Maclaine’s 35-minute opus The End. This apocalyptic masterpiece incorporates more cuts than many feature-length films, but from even the briefest of its shots flickers a San Francisco quite recognizable to anyone closely familiar with the city, even if we arrived here decades after Maclaine made the film in 1953. I was born here twenty years later, for example, but upon taking an opportunity to see this long-sought rarity three years ago, I was startled to recognize my alma mater George Washington High School as a location in the film. This only served to cement the personal re-calibration of my cinematic senses the film seemed to be achieving. When I later had a chance to speak of the experience with Brecht Andersch, who had introduced the screening in his role as part of the Film On Film Foundation, we determined to tour the film’s many, many San Francisco locations.

This year, we’ve done our best to do just that, tracking down the places where Maclaine and cinematographer Jordan Belson pointed the camera whether in the touristed northeast corner of the city or the wild West sections of Frisco. Brecht has begun posting the initial results of our tour at the SFMOMA Open Space blog; so far there’s an introduction and an initial set of screencaps with description. There’s also a photograph I took of how one of the locations (Alta Plaza Park) looks in 2010; future entries in Brecht’s series will include many more of these.

Research begets research, and when Brecht made unlikely contact with Wilder Bentley II, one of the two heretofore-identified (in any publications we’re aware of, at any rate) actors in The End, we felt compelled and privileged to venture to his residence in Sonoma County to interview him. He is expected to attend tonight’s screening of The End and talk about Maclaine, Frisco’s Bohemian scene in the early 1950s, etc. It promises to be quite an evening; whether you've seen The End before, or not, prepare yourself for re-calibration!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

No Time Like Cinema Time

The are only two days left to see Dogtooth on the San Francisco Film Society Screen at the Sundance Kabuki. I had hoped to write a full review of this remarkable, unsettling film about one family's bizarre home-schooling experiment gone to the extreme, which I was able to catch at the Greek Film Festival back in May. A modern-day application of classical Greek philosophy- particularly Plato's concept of The Cave, it's one of the best films I've seen all year, and it demands to be seen on the big screen, where one is held captive to cinema's traditional nature as a purely time-based medium (a quality compromised by the existence of the DVD player's pause function). Unfortunately time has not been on my side on this matter, so I must refer you to recent reviews by Cheryl Eddy and Dennis Harvey instead.

On Friday, Dogtooth will be replaced by Change Of Plans on the SFFS Screen, and also joined at the Kabuki by a weaker new opening, Zhang Yimou's A Woman, A Gun and A Noodle Shop. The latter is a remake of the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple that is at least (at most?) interesting in that it's more faithful to the original film in some of its aesthetic approaches, including a long wordless segment that mirrors the Coens' achievement, and even a recurrent sound effect surely intended to replicate the Balinese chant on the original film's soundtrack, than it is to the overall milieu, plot, tone, or character design. More broad Chinese-style slapstick than we Westerners are likely to forgive makes this remake a rather jarring one, even if certain individual scenes are impressive.

As the SFFS begins unveiling its Fall Season, it's also trying to negotiate a takeover of the Clay Theatre on Fillmore Street, which was expected to close near the end of last month but was spared for the time being; a French film Mademoiselle Chambon opens Friday. Michael Krasny recently hosted a fascinating radio program on the fate of the Clay and other single-screen theatres on Frisco Bay, in which the SFFS's Graham Leggatt outlined his hopes for the 100-year-old venue. In the meantime, R.A. McBride and Julie Lindow's book Left In The Dark has begun appearing on the shelves of Frisco Bay bookstores (City Lights and The Green Arcade, for two). I was honored to be quoted in a piece by Sam Sharkey, formerly of the Clay, now of the Red Vic, on the future of moviegoing; other essays by Chi-hui Yang, Eddie Muller, Gary Meyer with Laura Horak, and Sergio de la Mora help make this book a must-read for anyone interested in the history of Frisco Bay cinemagoing, but it's the superb photography by R.A. McBride which makes it a must-own for anyone with a coffee table or a bookshelf.

Another Frisco bay-centric film book entitled Radical Light focuses on the many permutations of experimental cinema made and screened here over the second half of the last century. After purchasing it at the Berkeley Art Museum Store on Friday, I've only been able to get about halfway through it so far, but it's absolutely required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in American avant-garde filmmaking, of which Frisco Bay has been the major center for much of the time period covered in the book (1945-2000). And since, despite having twice as many pages as Left in the Dark, it's actually got a cheaper list price, at least in paperback, I have to say I'm even more satisfied with this purchase (as unfair as it feels to compare these two very worthy and exciting publications). The Pacific Film Archive and SF Cinematheque will hold a spectacular array of special-guest laden screenings in conjunction with the book release over the next several months, beginning with a PFA screening September 19th that I cannot recommend more highly. Aesthetically diverse masterpieces from Dion Vigne's North Beach to Bruce Baillie's All My Life to Chris Marker's Junkopia will play together, and filmmakers Ernie Gehr and Lawrence Jordan will appear in person. BAM will also open a gallery exhibition of documents related to the book and to the experimental film scene on October 6th.

Among other tasks that took up my time in recent weeks was a very enjoyable one: writing a review of the new Josef Von Sternberg box set published over a week ago at GreenCine Daily. As I begin the review, Criterion has traditionally not been a major force in releasing American silent films, but with this set (of Underworld, the Last Command, and the Docks of New York), and its upcoming Charlie Chaplin releases, it seems intent on becoming a major player in this field after all. Criterion's affiliated company Janus is bringing five days full of Chaplin films to the Castro Theatre later this month, and I can't wait to see these films on the big screen.

Although I must admit, I may be a bit exhausted by the time the Chaplin series begins with his still-underrated The Circus September 18th. I'll have just returned from over a week at the Toronto International Film Festival, my first-ever visit to this festival, or indeed this city. In fact, I'd better wrap up this post now if I want to make my flight! See you in a week and a half!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Sean McCourt on Ray Harryhausen

Late August is traditionally one of the few moments of the Frisco Bay filmgoing year during which there are no film festivals- a quiet before the storm of autumn festivals whose flyers are sure to blow onto our doorsteps like fallen leaves soon enough, when the Arab Film Festival, Docfest, the United Nations Association Film Festival and others get into gear, and when the San Francisco Film Society begins its Fall Season in earnest (they've already announced their line-up for a new presentation of something called the NY/SF International Childrens' Film Festival in September, and a few other isolated screenings including Mauritz Stiller's silent Sir Arne's Treasure with music by the Mountain Goats on December 14). In the absence of festivals, several local cinemas have outdone themselves in programming older films worth discovering or revisiting on the big screen in the next few weeks. The Roxie begins a truly amazing and eclectic series entitled Not Necessarily Noir tonight with a double-bill of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the Quatermass Experiment; other great selections by programmer Elliot Levine include Andre De Toth's Day of the Outlaw, Brian De Palma's Obsession, Paul Schrader's Blue Collar (image below) and Hardcore, and Abel Ferrara's The Bad Lieutenant.

Also tonight, the VIZ Cinema begins two weeks screening Akira Kurosawa's most broadly-beloved samurai pictures, just as the Pacific Film Archive winds down their summer-long Kurosawa retrospective with the final few films of his career. In addition to the PFA's regular programming (they've just announced their schedule through October as well, by the way) the Berkeley venue has been rented out the afternoon of Sunday, August 22, when Franco Zefferelli's 1981
Endless Love is presented by the Film on Film Foundation, with screenwriter Judith Rascoe expected to be present to talk about her adaptation of the Scott Spencer novel for the screen. FOFF's Brecht Andersch has penned two compelling articles on the "accursed" nature of the film and its place in the great tradition of American melodrama, but the only way to be sure whether or not this never-on-DVD Brooke Shields vehicle deserves its less-than-stellar reputation or not, is to see it on 35mm for ourselves.

The Castro Theatre, too, is an exciting repertory venue in August and September, with films by David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, Frank Tashlin, Charlie Chaplin, and other sure-bet directors on the horizon. This weekend the venue turns its screen over to the special effects career of the great Ray Harryhausen. Sometime Hell On Frisco Bay contributor Sean McCourt interviewed Harryhausen in 2006, and I'm pleased that he has offered up his article on the nonagenarian wizard, originally published in a slightly different form in the Marin Independent Journal, for publication here. Here's Sean:

Much like the mad scientists of classic horror films that diligently toiled in remote and mist-filled secret laboratories to bring their mutant creations to life, special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen had to invent unconventional techniques to bring his movie magic to the big screen when he revolutionized the world of fantasy film making in the 1950s and 1960s. His work on Jason and the Argonauts (above image), Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms among many others has influenced several generations of filmmakers that grew up watching his stop-motion creatures—icons that have rampaged their way into the imaginations of children and children at heart for more than fifty years now.

Harryhausen, celebrated his 90th birthday this year, and the Castro Theatre is honoring him this weekend with a six-film tribute including /The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (image below), a film that contains one of his best known scenes—a climatic duel between Sinbad and a sword-wielding skeleton. The effect was created by using a technique called “Dynamation,” where live action footage is combined with stop-motion animation to give the illusion that the intricately detailed models of monsters or people are interacting with the real world.

Seeing 1933’s King Kong as a young boy inspired Harryhausen, and he thinks the stop-motion animation methods that were employed in King Kong and that he later used in his own work did a better job than the computer generated special effects of today. “If you make fantasy too realistic, I think it defeats itself,” says Harryhausen. “It suddenly becomes mundane you know, because half the charm of the early Kong was it was like a nightmare, you knew it wasn’t real, and yet it looks real.”

Bay Area film fans will likely recall It Came From Beneath the Sea, a 1955 sci-fi romp that featured a giant octopus tearing down the clock tower of San Francisco’s Ferry Building and destroying the Golden Gate Bridge. If had been up to city officials, however, the latter scene, another of Harryhausen’s most famous, may never have come to fruition. “We submitted the script to the San Francisco city fathers, and they felt that it would weaken the bridge in the public mind if somebody pulled it down, like a giant octopus,” he laughs. “We had to do everything in a devious way—we put the camera in a bakery truck and went back and forth over the bridge to get our background shots. But the picture was released there and there were no complaints.”

Another hurdle Harryhausen had to overcome on the picture was the lack of sufficient funding. To cut financial corners, and to save some time in the process, the special effects guru made the octopus with only six tentacles, as opposed to the anatomically correct eight, cleverly hiding the fact by making it look like the missing arms were simply under the water. “If they had cut the budget anymore we would have had a tripod,” he laughs.

Limited financial resources were a common bond between most of the films that Harryhausen worked on in those days, as science fiction and fantasy pictures were often regarded as “B movies” by the big studios. “Unfortunately we had to work on very tight budgets, and we always had to compromise—we could never get quite what we wanted because of time and money—but today they’ve outlasted nine tenths of the ‘A pictures’ of that time.”

Thursday, July 22, 2010

SFSFF Weekend Wrap

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival facilitated four tremendous days of cinephilia. So many rare opportunities to see films from the early part of the previous century (and even one from 1898) presented with live musical accompaniment with a knowledgeable and appreciative audience, and to talk to musicians, scholars, offspring of key players in silent filmmaking, and enthusiastic fans, made for a truly overstuffed weekend. I saw every "full-length" film shown, and most of the short films and public presentations as well. Some highlight memories of many from the past weekend:

1. Walking down Castro Street after Sunday's screening of The Shakedown, I saw the familiar face of Leonard Maltin approaching. I had to stop him to quickly thank him for his introduction to the film. In the course of interviewing its director William Wyler's three daughters, Catherine, Judy and Melanie, he spoke of Wyler's second film made outside the Western genre as a good, but not great picture. Watching it, I found the Shakedown to be more than just a terrific entertainment and a showcase for Wyler's developing skills as an inventive filmmaker. In the way it depicts con artists on the show-biz boxing circuit, it's a deeply meaningful look at the way acting a persona can envelop a performer's personal life and self-identity. The resonances of leading man James Murray (also of the Crowd) and his sad biography surely added to this deep feeling. On the other hand, his co-star Barbara Kent is one of the few silent-era players still living today.

I told Mr. Maltin how much I'd appreciated his approach to introducing the film: keeping audience expectations modest, so that we could in a sense "discover" the film's virtues for ourselves. This as opposed to the approach of praising a film to the skies to an audience just before we're about to see it, which seems unnecessary as we're not going to be buying any more tickets to it at that moment, and it may inflate expectations to the point where the film, no matter how good it is, can't measure up. Maltin's smiling response: "It's probably never played so well in its history." Surely a tribute to the receptive festival audience, and perhaps even more to Donald Sosin's virtuosic jazz piano accompaniment (Sosin really outdid himself with his three accompaniments this year, and the Shakedown was his best performance of the three, I felt.) But most of all to the nature of the Silent Film Festival, which is able to create almost utopian presentations of the films selected, by aligning all the right factors: venue, audience, accompaniment, and best available film print.

2. Saturday's presentation Variations On A Theme: Musicians on the Craft of Composing and Performing for Silent Films was not organized quite how I expected, and I'm not sure how the hour would have gone over for an individual ticket buyer, but for those of us with festival passes, it was certainly well worth staying in our seats for. We even got to witness a bit of friendly but sharp disagreement between the panelists! Classical musician/writer/radio host Chloe Veltman seemed natural and confident as moderator, even if a few of her questions to the gathered accompanists betrayed some inexperience with watching silent films with live music (though at least she'd seen the festival screening of The Cook, Pass The Gravy and Big Business that morning). But the best part of the presentation was when the musicians took a couple of questions from the audience. Audience q-and-a is always a crap shoot but in this case the questions elicited responses that got close to the heart of some very real philosophical differences between the panel members.

Authenticity is perhaps the key issue at stake in the variety of approaches taken by different accompanists. Pianist Stephen Horne (or should I say multi-instrumentalist Stephen Horne, as he sometimes plays flute or squeezebox with one hand while the other dances upon the ivories,) spoke up for an approach that privileges an authenticity to the scene and its emotional resonance. By contrast, both Rodney Sauer of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, and theatre organist Dennis James argued for an authenticity to music that audiences of the silent era might have been likely to hear when attending a film. Interestingly, these two, whose approaches might appear at first glance to be the most closely aligned amidst the group, engaged in the most contentious exchange of the panel. James argued for fidelity to the original sheet music commissioned by the director or producer of the film, whenever possible. Sauer countered that such cue sheets or scores were often abandoned or otherwise ignored by accompanists after an initial premiere performance or engagement in large cities, which is why his group favors compilations from the repertoire of compositions that would have been familiar to a typical salon orchestra of the 1920s. What became evident is that each accompanist does a certain amount of research into conventions of the time when producing a score, but that none of them are absolute purists in their approach. Even James will make certain allowances for the modern audience in defiance of the instructions of silent-era film music decision-makers. He'll ignore a cue sheet's suggestion of (for example) Rossini's William Tell Overture, because ever since the popularity of The Lone Ranger on radio and television, that theme takes audiences out of the moment. So don't expect to hear that familiar theme when Dennis James plays the Davies Symphony Hall organ to back John Barrymore in the 1920 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde this October 31st.

3. One moment that felt particularly gratifying to this blogger was the unveiling, during the second of two sets of presentations by members of the film archiving community, of a newly-preserved print of a 1912 one-reeler called The Better Man. The film is notable as a rare positive portrayal of a Mexican character in a Western, and features some notably effective camerawork, particularly an unexpected long tilt up a cliffside, revealing just how far one character has just fallen. Apparently the first new print struck from the trove of American films recently discovered in a Wellington, New Zealand film archive, The Better Man is also one of three two films whose preservation was funded through the efforts of the For The Love Of Film blog-a-thon organized by the incomparable Self-Styled Siren and Marilyn Ferdinand this past February. Whether or not even one person donated to the blog-a-thon fund after reading my own written contribution to that online event, I felt a little pride just from my connection to a community that made seeing this film possible.

In truth, everyone who buys a ticket to a Silent Film Festival program can feel pride that they help to support not only the presentation of, but also the preservation of silent films. The festival organizes its own annual fellowship through the L. Jeffrey Selznick school at Eastman House, and unless I misinterpreted what I heard announced from the Castro stage, this year's fellowship recipient will prepare the Douglas Fairbanks feature Mr. Fix-It for preservation, and presentation at the 2011 SFSFF. It's never too early to begin anticipating next year's program, and given that Allan Dwan directed Fairbanks in arguably his two best costume pageant films of the 1920's (Robin Hood and the Iron Mask), I'm excited to see this little-seen Dwan-directed film from Fairbanks's 1910s filmography.

According to the festival's own blog, another title already announced for the 2011 festival is Fritz Lang's second-most-famous science-fiction epic Woman In the Moon. I must have been in the popcorn line or something during this announcement, because I certainly would have remembered had I heard such an ingenious plan. I did hear Anita Monga announce that another Lunar silent, a Trip to the Moon would be forthcoming at the next festival. By then, a hand-colored version of the film will have been subject to a new restoration, and will be exhibited in a 35mm print that shall surely put to shame all of the Georges Méliès films that played from digital projections prior to festival features this year.

Other announcements made from the Castro stage over the weekend:

If you enjoyed The Iron Horse, you'll want to know that another John Ford film, this time a comedy from his F.W. Murnau-influenced phase, will have its "repremiere" at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on September 1st. Normally I wouldn't mention screenings happening all the way at the Southern end of the state, but since Upstream is one of the films being repatriated from New Zealand along with the Better Man, and because John Ford fans are hoping this screening is a success and leads to more around the country (including, hopefully, here on Frisco Bay) it seems worth noting.

Closer to home, Susan Oxtoby of the Pacific Film Archive announced, as part of her introductory remarks on Man With A Movie Camera at the festival, that the PFA is planning a Dziga Vertov retrospective for that venue, most likely for September-October of 2011. The Alloy Orchestra seems too large and loud a group to fit into the Berkeley venue to provide a reprise of the frantic scoring we heard Sunday afternoon, so my imagination is running wild trying to think of how Vertov's 1929 masterpiece might be accompanied musically there; I've regrettably missed several chances to hear what Judith Rosenberg does with Man With A Movie Camera (though I got a sampling when she performed to a DVD snippet at the SFSFF's press conference back in May), but I'm also very curious about Dennis James's score for the film, last performed here almost fifteen years ago. And then there is recent rumor of a "definitive" soundtrack recording on the horizon. If anticipating screenings more than a year in advance is too exhausting, Frisco Bay Vertov fans will surely be interested in the work of filmmakers his theories inspired, some of whom are sure to be a part of the PFA's focus on Frisco Bay's avant-garde filmmaking history this fall in celebration of the long-awaited release of the Radical Light book. Another filmmaker influenced by Vertov, Jean-Luc Godard, will have his first feature film on local screens for a week starting tomorrow. I've had a chance to see this new Rialto print of Godard's Breathless, with its new and improved subtitle translation unavailable on DVD, and it's certainly the upcoming week's cinematic must-see. Rod Armstrong of the San Francisco Film Society will introduce tomorrow night's screenings at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.

More random notes on the 2010 Silent Film Festival and upcoming related screenings:

The San Francisco Film Museum has posted the photos taken of SFSFF attendees disguised as the Maria Robot from Metropolis this weekend, so take a gander. For those who were shut out of Friday night's screening, the Castro will hold digital screenings of the restoration, albeit without live musical accompaniment, on August 13-15. Also part of the Castro's upcoming August calendar will be a screening of Fritz Lang's most well-known Hollywood film, the Big Heat, on August 30. The Jewish Film Festival is the next organization to bring a silent film with live accompaniment to the Castro, with this Monday's presentation of the 1922 film Hungry Hearts.

I always know I'll see some of my favorite local bloggers at the Silent Film Festival. Michael Guillén, Lincoln Specter, Jay Blodgett, Jason Wiener and shahn, who surely exaggerates when calling me a "local sensation". Then again, I am quoted on my experience watching Häxan by Jeremy Mathews in his article for Moving Pictures Magazine, and a conversation with Adam Hartzell is described in his piece for GreenCine Daily. I guess it's in the nature of being something of a blogosphere gadfly, but I'm a little embarrassed to find my name singled out in so many blog write-ups on the SFSFF when so many of my writers' group colleagues produced superior work on much more difficult subjects. For example, David Kiehn's essay on the Iron Horse is filled with drama and quotes from personal accounts, and avoids at least one oft-repeated but easily debunked myth about the film's masterful final scene. Megan Pugh's essay on the Flying Ace and Monica Nolan's on L'Heureuse Mort must surely be among the most substantial pieces written in English on these two previously-obscure films. I could go on and on. At some point all the essays should be available to read in the Silent Film Festival's website archive.

It was nice to be able to build upon the research I did for the festival for last December's Winter Event when writing an article recently published in the Australian journal Senses of Cinema on West of Zanzibar and its director Tod Browning. Please let me know what you think of the article if you get a chance to read it, either at the e-mail address found on my profile page, or in a comment below. I also recommend highly that anyone who saw Diary of a Lost Girl last Saturday (or, anyone who didn't!) take the time to read a truly remarkable essay on the iconic status of Louise Brooks, published in the same issue. The twenty-fifth anniversary of her death arrives this August 8th.