Wednesday, January 13, 2010

I Only Have Two Eyes 2009

2010. How futuristic! And indeed, technology continues to shift the way many of us experience entertainment and art, seemingly making an entire catalog of the world's cinematic history available to us at our convenience. But in pockets of cinema culture like the Bay Area, the desire to see restored, revived, films on communal screens, preferably projected in 35mm prints, still thrives, as proven by many of the links found to the right side of this page. Though the pressures of commerce continue to impact the availability and marketability of repertory screenings, 2009 was still a strikingly rich year for those who took advantage of such experiences. No one of us could experience it all alone. Which is why I have, in these still-early days of the new year, invited fifteen cinephile compatriots to join me in picking out their highlights of the year gone by.

I asked for lists of up to ten filmgoing experiences had in Frisco Bay cinemas during 2009 watching repertory/revival films. Some contributors followed my "rules" to the letter, while other bent them according to their own predilections. I'm proud to present each and every one of their wrap-ups, available by clicking the following fifteen links, arranged in reverse alphabetical order (the opposite of last year):

Austin Wolf-Sothern, who blogs at Placenta Ovaries.
Jason Wiener, who blogs at Jason Watches Movies.
Marisa Vela, who has contributed twice before to my wrap-ups here.
Terri Saul, who blogs at Sister-Rye.
Maureen Russell, an SFFS member who also volunteers for Noir City & SFSFF.
Monica Nolan, filmmaker and writer.
Betty Nguyen, founder and creative director of First Person Magazine.
Carl Martin, who maintains the Film On Film Foundation's Film Calendar.
Ryland Walker Knight, who blogs at Vinyl Is Heavy.
Laura Horak, Ph.D. Candidate in Film Studies at the University of California.
Michael Hawley, who blogs at film-415.
Adam Hartzell, contributor to sf360,, this site, and elsewhere.
Larry Chadbourne, of the Film On Film Foundation.
Ben Armington, Frequent Film Festival Box Officer.
Brecht Andersch, who blogs for SFMOMA and the Film on Film Foundation.

And my own list of ten, confined this time around to films I had never seen before at all (though first-time-in-theatre screenings like the Shining at the Clay, the 39 Steps at the Stanford, Kings of the Road at Berlin & Beyond, and even Pootie Tang at the Red Vic were all revelations of another kind). In chronological order of my viewing them:

the Docks of New York, 1928, Pacific Film Archive

After 2009, no longer do I associate the greatness of Josef Von Sternberg only with the films he made with Marlene Dietrich. The Pacific Film Archive's retrospective a year ago let me in on his silent-era career, and a trilogy of films that showed his camera could love big George Bancroft as deeply as it did Marlene. Though Underworld was the one reprised by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, my favorite must be The Docks of New York, set amidst an almost documentary-real wharfside community. Judith Rosenberg outdid herself with her piano accompaniment- and that's saying something. Her playing was perfect for this proto-noir paragon, without standing in the way of Sternberg's synesthesia.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, 1974, SFMOMA

One of those films that divides cinema history in half: in this case into a pre-Jeanne Dielman phase and a post-Jeanne Dielman phase. With stature like that it's no wonder I'd been more than a bit intimated by this legendarily repetitive, over-three-hour-long peer into a woman's apartment, even as I developed into a cinephile very fond of filmmakers who reject conventions of duration (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, James Benning, Bela Tarr). But as much as I love those directors' best films, what Chantal Akerman does here is clearly both a (not necessarily direct) influence, and on another plane of psychological complexity and sophistication. It's hard to believe I took so much pleasure in watching a film that so thoroughly deconstructs the ingrained concept of a human being acting for another's pleasure.

Venice Pier, 1976, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

I'm afraid I didn't take nearly enough advantage this year of the varied and enticing offerings of the beloved Frisco Bay institution, SF Cinematheque, or as it was known in some circles in 2009, SF Cinema Attack. But I did catch a few programs, including a set of L.A.-centric historical shorts presented by film preservationist Mark Toscano. And as much as I grooved on Thom Anderson's --- -------, and clicked with Morgan Fischer's Turning Over, the real gem of the set for me was the little-known Venice Pier by Gary Beydler. Presented in an absolutely lustrous 16mm print restored by Toscano, this 16-minute film encapsulates the interplay between cinematic space and cinematic time. Beydler spent a year documenting a quarter-mile plank stretching into the Pacific Ocean, producing something that will hopefully be more widely appreciated today than it was 33 years ago.

Accident, 1967, Pacific Film Archive, presentation of the Film On Film Foundation

I can't feign eloquence in the face of this beautiful beast. I just don't have much to say about this Joseph Losey-directed film except that it's filled with astonishing performances. Words fail, but give me some clay and perhaps I'll be able to sculpt a figurine that explains precisely how I feel about this film. PS: the screen capture at the top of this post is from an import DVD of the film.

Ms. 45, 1981, Castro

Only my second trip into Abel Ferrara-land, and my first in a cinema, Ms. 45 blew a hole in my brain, in just the way I want a film to. All the elements of an exploitation picture work at that level and at at least a dozen others to thrill and provoke an audience no matter how jaded. If Jeanne Dielman mated with Taxi Driver in the projection booth of a 42nd Street grindhouse, it might resemble Ms. 45.

Three Resurrected Drunkards, 1968, Pacific Film Archive

My favorite of the Nagisa Oshima series that sanctified the PFA this summer, and I don't think it's just because it was the only film in the series I was able to watch twice (which is not quite the same thing as watching half of it four times). It certainly was a delight to experience its surprises first from the position of the initiate and then the knowing insider. But the delights of this film by no means began there; this is in essence a comedy brimming with terrific characters, hilarious costume changes, absurd location stand-ins, and as much laughter as political bite.

American Graffiti, 1973, Castro

If a number of this year's tensome lean toward the "thinky", let this pinnacle of pure cinema serve as their sturdiest counterweight. Here we have an immersion of motion, of music, of color and light shining down out of the darkness. I can't believe I'd put off watching it for so long, but I'm glad I waited to see it on the no modesto Castro screen. George Lucas's seventies science fictions have been in my cinematic RNA for so long and so deep that it's hard to imagine my life without them. But American Graffiti is truly the apotheosis of that fallen figure's intertwining pop-cinema and high art instincts, The result is something that truly makes you feel, both in terms of emotion and sensation. I was dismayed to hear Lucas recently say that he didn't see a future for the American Grafittis of the world on cinema screens, as I can't imagine thrilling to many spectacles the way I did to this one.

Nightfall, 1957, Roxie

The scene where Anne Bancroft steps off her fashion model runway and into a chase would alone make this film a contender for my highest personal accolades. But it's part of a masterful late-period film noir by one of the great, still-underheralded directors, Jacques Tourneur. More than reinvestigating his theme of urban amorality poisoning rural purity from his ealier Out Of The Past, Tourneur deepens his treatment through judicious use of flashback to control viewer information. As Chris Fujiwara writes in his critical study of the director, Nightfall "uses screen time as a metaphor for subjective time, just as it uses spatial metaphors for phenomena of consciousness..." I enjoyed it so much I sat through an inferior co-feature to watch it a second time in one day- a practically unheard of act for me.

City of Sadness, 1989, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

I wrote a piece on this moving family drama, as much a landmark in the history of Taiwanese cinema as it is a landmark in the cinema of Taiwanese history, the day after I saw it. I wanted to use my little platform here to get the word out on the second of two screenings of this luminous new print at the YBCA. I'm pleased that another chance to see the (presumably) same print arrives on February 20th, in conjunction with a Berkeley conference on the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, whose influence on Hou has been much commented upon.

Je t'aime, Je t'aime, 1968, Pacific Film Archive

Why should classical editing be synonymous with continuity? Alain Resnais proved that narrative lines can be incredibly jagged without sacrificing clarity. Though the sci-fi rationale is clever, perhaps the best reason for employing genre tropes such as men in labcoats is to convey the film itself as an experiment. In fact Je t'aime, Je t'aime is less concerned with imagining alternate technologies and universes than it is with seriously considering human memory.


  1. I saw American Graffiti a couple of times when it first was released. The screen wasn't as big as the Castro's though. For myself, the most amazing part of the film was the soundtrack, the use of sound designed by Walter Murch, which was very innovative at the time.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Peter, and apologies for the lateness of a reply; I've been out of town for a week. American Graffiti was released the year I was born, but it's fun for me to try and put myself in your shoes, seeing it upon its initial release with no knowledge of Star Wars (the first film I ever saw during its initial release - Disney reissues being the only movies I'd gone to prior to that, according to my parents) in mind. You've written on your blog about your preference for the Empire Strikes Back, but someday I'd be very curious to learn your cinephile reaction to the turn Lucas's career took in the 1970s.