Friday, May 28, 2010

What I'm Thinking About This Week

Ten years ago at this time I was living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, teaching English at a local high school. It seems like such a long time ago, but the impact of spending a year and a half living and working in a foreign country did so much to change my perspectives on the world, and my place in it, that I still feel very close to the experience. I'm sometimes wistful that I've lost touch with all of my former students and fellow teachers, and indeed most of the friends I made while living abroad, but returning to my native city where I've resided ever since, has not made me feel as if I've completely lost touch with Thailand. I cherish my mostly-fond memories of the country, and still try to keep up with major current events there, as depressing as they often may be (as they have been lately).

Cinema has been a major component of my feeling of connectedness. While in Chiang Mai I first tried my hand at criticism, penning a monthly video review column for a local English-language news magazine catering to the British/Australian/North American ex-patriot community. At the time, I wrote mostly about the latest Hollywood films, because they were the ones widely available in rental shops. It was easy to experience the cultural artifacts of my own culture while abroad. Now I'm lucky to live in a place where I can more than just vicariously experience some of the benefits of Thai cinema's resurgence and global emergence over the past decade or so. Between all of the film festivals and alternative screening venues that exist here on Frisco Bay, there are usually a few opportunities a year, and sometimes as many as a half-dozen or more, to view Thai films in 35mm prints on the big screen; of these I've missed only a scant few over the past decade. I've been able to keep relatively current with the work of directors I was first exposed to during my time in the Land of Smiles- Wisit Sasanatieng, Nonzee Nimibutr and Pen-ek Ratanaruang (the latter's latest Nymph was not among the best films I saw at the latest San Francisco International Film Festival, but I was extremely pleased for the opportunity to view it, and particularly its nearly-supernatural opening camera move, in a cinema in my own town.) I've been able to discover from afar the work of newer talent like Uruphong Raksasad, who makes his digital quasi-documentaries in the region of Thailand I'm most personally familiar with, or Anocha Suwichakornpong, whose Mundane History was my most truly transcendent highlight of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival earlier this year.

The constant Thai cinematic presence over these years as a Frisco guy who left some small piece of his heart in Thailand, however, has been Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who ten years ago was seeing his first feature film, Mysterious Object At Noon, travel the global festival circuit. I first heard his name in 2001, shortly before the film played to a small audience at the Pacific Film Archive. Since then, thanks to the SFIFF, SFIAAFF, and other local venues tapped into international cinephile dialogue, I've been able to watch most of his film and video work, much of it repeatedly. How much of a debt do I owe my affection for and fascination with Apichatpong's filmmaking to my stint in Thailand? I can't be sure, but it's been heartening to feel like I've been following this still-young director over the past decade as his visibility has increased among film-lovers everywhere. I was so thrilled and surprised on Sunday, when his latest feature Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the first such win for an Asian film since films by Shohei Imamura and Abbas Kiarostami shared the honor in 1997. Of course I have not yet seen Uncle Boonmee (although I was delighted to see his companion short video piece Letter to Uncle Boonmee at the SFIAAFF in March) and perhaps I'll even find it a letdown compared to his three masterful 35mm features, Syndromes and a Century, Tropical Malady, and Blissfully Yours. But I feel glad that this high-profile win will surely secure a chance for Frisco Bay Apichatpong fans to see the film eventually, and hopefully sooner than such an opportunity would otherwise be likely to occur.

In the meantime, I'm all the more excited to plunge into the viewing opportunities that have been laid upon my table. One certainly doesn't need to be an Apichatpong Weerasethakul admirer to be excited by chances to see Andy Warhol films, but it supplies another reason; Apichatpong has often named Warhol, along with Frisco Bay experimental film legend Bruce Baillie, as favorite filmmakers and key inspirations for his work. SFMOMA will screen confirmed Apichatpong favorite The Chelsea Girls on July 8. And the longest-running lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender film festival in the world, Frameline, has announced as part of its upcoming program next month a large-scale focus on Andy Warhol. It consists of screenings of a new documentary, Beautiful Darling, the Life and Times of Candy Darling, Andy Warhol Superstar, a clips lecture by Ron Gregg, and two programs of shorter Warhol films selected by Gregg, including Vinyl, which adapted Anthony Burgess's a Clockwork Orange with Gerard Malanga six years before Stanley Kubrick did it with Malcolm McDowell.

In addition to the Warhol films, Frameline selections I'm anxious to see include I Killed My Mother by Xavier Dolan and Spring Fever by Lou Ye, both of which come highly regarded by those who have seen them at festivals over the past year, and Géza von Radvány's 1958 version of Madchen In Uniform, screening as an archival selection. Frameline veterans from Cheryl Dunye to François Ozon to Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman each will have new films presented at this year's festival, but the full range of filmmaking, from documentary to short form to a robust selection of South America's New Queer Cinema cannot be adequately summarized in a paragraph of preview, so I urge you to browse the full schedule before finalizing your festival plans. I know I will.

June's going to be a crowded month of filmgoing however, even with Sex In The City 2 virtually* dominating the Castro Theatre from now until Frameline opens there June 17. After a near-month of hiatus, the Pacific Film Archive reopens this weekend. The venue's regular projection space (at least until 2014 or so) at 2575 Bancroft Way has its first screenings of the summer tomorrow evening, when a double feature of Whistler films you may or may not have seen at the Roxie's I Still Wake Up Dreaming B-noir festival, play. As does the 1975 King Hu martial arts extravaganza The Valiant Ones. The latter kicks off a remarkable series of recent acquisitions to the PFA film collection, which reminds us that Berkeley's most-revered film exhibition venue has roots much deeper than mere exhibition. (So that's what the 'A' stood for!) Films by Hayao Miyazaki, Agnès Varda, Alberto Gout, Robert Gardner, Judy Irving and others round out the eclectic series. Tributes to Mexican science fiction, the Romanian New Wave and the Residents ensure a little something for everyone, but surely the centerpiece of the PFA's summer is the complete Akira Kurosawa retrospective being held in honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Completists are already drooling over the chance to see rarities like Sanshiro Sugata I & II and the Quiet Duel on the big screen, but Berekely is not the only place to get an A.K. fix in June. On this side of the bridge, the Embarcadero will screen a new print of Kurosawa's most famous color film, Ran for a week beginning June 4th. And four of the master's most noirish black-and-white films will play in 35mm prints at the still-new VIZ Cinema at Post and Webster Streets that same week: Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, the Bad Sleep Well and High and Low are the titles, not a samurai sword among them. The VIZ lineup for June is truly jawdropping for those of us who can't get enough classic Japanese cinema. After a week of Kurosawa films, the Japantown venue will bring four Yasujiro Ozu films including his most-widely-acknowledged masterpiece Tokyo Story, his following film Early Spring, and two earlier films I've been wishing to see return to Frisco Bay since I missed them during his PFA centennial six and a half years ago: The Only Son and Record Of A Tenement Gentlemen. As if that weren't enough, VIZ will screen four Kenji Mizoguchi masterpieces (I confidently say this not having seen all of them) June 19-24: Sisters of The Gion (pictured above), Ugetsu Monogatari, Street of Shame and Utamaro and His Five Women (the one I haven't seen yet). This is a truly special set of twelve films VIZ is bringing in June, each with multiple playdates, so go to as many as you can while you can, and tell your friends, if you want to encourage future screenings of Japanese classics on this side of Frisco Bay, where they've been pretty scarce in recent years.

VIZ Cinema, which until recently focused on screening the films of its affiliated DVD label almost exclusively, is obviously stretching its programming muscles, and if this keeps up it will rapidly become one of the most exciting venues on Frisco Bay. Also to play there in June are two programs with a South Asian, rather than East Asian, focus: 3rd i's Queer Eye, an outpost of LGBT films presented by the folks who bring the South Asian Film Festival to town every November, and the locally-made Indian diasporic film Bicycle Bride.

What else is happening in June? The previously-mentioned "I Still Wake Up Dreaming" series experienced rush line level crowds for some of its 35mm screenings, as well as some technical difficulties in the sound quality of certain of the 16mm prints it showed, so programmer Elliot Lavine and the Roxie Theater decided to reprise some of the affected films from June 4. I wholeheartedly recommend the June 6th double-bill in particular, featuring the two best films I saw at the festival: Phil Karlson's luckless boxer nailbiter 99 River Street, and the sultry policier Cop Hater. Everyone seemed to love the cameo-studded rat pack gangster film Johnny Cool but me; it plays June 4 if you want to see for yourself. (For me, it couldn't live up to its theme song.) The Fearmakers, Jacques Tourneur's 1958 expose of the communist infiltration of Washington, D.C. publicity firms is not among the director's great films, but it's an interesting time capsule worth a look in 35mm; it plays June 6th along with a 35mm print of Nightmare, which I missed the first time around. I also missed the three 16mm prints that suffered the worst sound problems, and which will play on a triple-bill June 7th, for free for those who attended their prior screenings and for $11 for the rest of us. Gustav Machatý's Jealousy sounds the most intriguing of the trio.

Oakland's Paramount Theatre begins its summer film series the same weekend, with a June 4 screening of the late Lynn Redgrave's defining film Georgy Girl. Other films scheduled to screen at Frisco Bay's largest, most opulent (if intermittently-utilized) movie palace are the original King Kong July 9, E.T. July 23, and the great Howard Hawks film To Have And Have Not August 6. The Rafael Film Center will play the 1937 Prisoner of Zenda as a special presentation with Oscar winners Craig Barron and Ben Burtt on June 13. SFMOMA screens Clint Eastwood's first directorial effort Play Misty For Me June 10. And the Red Vic has a new calendar on the streets with its usual combination of second-run, repertory, and special event bookings. The documentary on influential filmmakers George and Mike Kuchar (the latter of whom gets a rare solo show at Artists' Television Access June 5) called It Came From Kuchar makes its landing June 14 & 15. Bong Joon-ho's Mother plays June 16 & 17 (his The Host plays the PFA June 18), the sheepherding documentary Sweetgrass appears July 12 & 13, and Banksy's Exit Through The Gift Shop closes the door on this particular calendar August 6-9. Along with the theatre's annual anniversary screenings of Harold and Maude (July 25-28) the Red Vic celebrates its 30th year of operation by showcasing three winners of a recent audience poll of its favorite repertory films. The winners: Alejandro Jodorowski's El Topo (August 1 & 2) takes the bronze, Dead Man (August 3 & 4) the silver, and Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (July 18 & 19) the gold. I'm a deep admirer of all three of these not-quite-canonized films. Congratulations to Red Vic patrons on your discerning and non-conforming taste!

The Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto still has a few more weeks left on its appetizing current calendar, which ends with a Josef Von Sternberg double-bill (Morocco and The Devil Is A Woman) June 16-18. The day after that, another southerly film venue plays another Sternberg film, this time one of his most highly-regarded silent films, the Last Command. The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, tucked in a lovely corner of Fremont, will present that Oscar-winning film with Jon Mirsalis providing musical accompaniment on Kurzweil synthesizer. It's part of the Silent Film Museum's busiest month of the year; the first weekend in June is given over to Charlie Chaplin Days, honoring the most well-known actor to have worked in Niles back when Hollywood's supremacy as California's movie-making hub was not yet secure. The Gold Rush and other Chaplin films will screen. The final weekend of the month brings a festival named for a cowboy star who was every bit as well-known as Chaplin in his day, but has become something of a footnote today. This year's 13th Annual Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival features seven different programs of features and short subjects starring figures once famous to all, but now forgotten to most moviegoers, such as Wallace Reid, J. Warren Kerrigan, and G.M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson himself. An early (1920) King Vidor-directed film, the Jack-Knife Man promises to be a high point of the weekend.

Frisco's own Silent Film Festival has announced its program as well; expanded to a four-day event for its 15th edition, the festival has really outdone itself in lining up well-known and rare silent films, musicians, and special guests for the July 15-18 event. I will surely have more to say on this festival in the weeks to come, but in the meantime, Lincoln Spector has covered some of the highlights. This marks the sixth time I've contributed a contextual essay for the festival's program booklet, a copy of which will be handed to every attendee at the Castro that weekend. "My" film, this time around, has been Dziga Vertov's magnum opus Man With A Movie Camera, which will screen on Sunday afternoon, July 18th, with the Alloy Orchestra performing its critically-acclaimed musical score based on Vertov's 1929 instructions. Familiarizing myself with the history of early Soviet film-making, and sorting through the mountains of material written on Vertov in particular, has made for one of the most challenging and rewarding research projects I've attempted yet. I hope that the end-products (a pre-screening slide show, as well as the essay) prove valuable to festgoers. I have no doubt that the screening and musical performance will be entertaining and eye-opening for people who have already seen Man With A Movie Camera, and for those who haven't. If there was ever a film that deserves repeat viewings, this is it.

While looking through libraries and archives, trying to better understand the conditions under which Vertov's films were screened for the public in his day, I found a collection of program notes from The Film Society Of London which thrust my imagination back into early 1930s art-cinema exhibition. The Film Society had been founded in 1925 by Anthony Asquith, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, and H.G. Wells among other original members. In early 1931 the group screened Man With a Movie Camera on a program with a Silly Symphony (Artic Antics), a set of color (excuse me, colour) photography tests from British and American companies, an Austrian puppet play (The Dragon Prince), and a section of Alberto Cavalcanti's Little Red Riding Hood. Later that year, the same venue played Vertov's first sound film, Enthusiasm with the director personally in attendance; this was two days prior to Charlie Chaplin's famous pronouncement: "Never had I known that these mechanical sounds could be arranged to seem so beautiful...Mr. Dziga Vertov is a musician. The professors should learn from him not quarrel with him." In late 1935 Vertov's following film Three Songs About Lenin screened on a bill with Cavalcanti's GPO documentary Coal Face and Len Lye's Kaleidoscope among other short subjects.

I find it thrilling to learn such details about a bygone era of cinephilia, in which leading playwrights, novelists, and economists rubbed shoulders with animators, documentarians, film technologists, and avant-garde filmmakers from home and abroad. I do wonder what the membership requirements of The Film Society of London were like-- did one have to be a living legend to gain access, or are those simply the member names that have been handed down to us? Is there an equivalent of that activity today amidst the film festivals and venues right here in this town? I know that there are others who would disagree with me, but I just love that the SF Silent Film Festival programs films of diverse types, from all the corners of the world it can, alongside the justly classic and unjustly obscure entertainments from the Hollywood studio era. An 'us vs. them' attitude about independent and foreign filmmaking no doubt existed among some American film producers of the era, but in some corners of film appreciation, it feels like boundaries (national, stylistic, genre, etc.) are being patrolled more fiercely than ever. The Film Society Of London appeared to smash these kinds of barriers in its day, and from what I understand, early programming at places like SFMOMA did the same in the 1930s, mixing the avant-garde, documentary, an popular animation from various countries of origin, all on the same program.

Eighty years ago feels like a world away, but another little discovery made it seem just a little bit closer: on the back of the program for the Three Songs of Lenin screening was a list of films that had their British premiere at The Film Society in 1934-5, and it included (along with Jean Vigo's Zero For Conduct and Basil Wright's Song of Ceylon) a title I saw at the Pacific Film Archive a year and a half ago, Douro by Manoel de Oliveira. A silent, poetic documentary that was clearly made by a man who was then a young contemporary of Walter Ruttmann, Joris Ivens, and Vertov, Douro is almost certainly the only remaining silent-era debut film made by a director who is not only still living, but still making films, at 101 years of age. And here was his name listed amidst those of long-dead filmmakers who it's hard not to think of as belonging to a long-dead era.

While Oliveira's latest film just debuted alongside Apichatpong's in Cannes (Dennis Lim found the pair comparable highlights), his previous one is poised to make its first appearance here on Frisco Bay, also in June, at pretty much the only major local film venue I haven't yet mentioned in this post, the Yerba Buena Center For the Arts. Called Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl, on June 24, 26 & 27 it wraps up what looks to be an extremely strong month at the venue that has allowed me to see more Apichatpong Weerasethakul films than any other. No, YBCA hasn't announced plans to screen Uncle Boonmee yet, but they will be showing, in addition to the Oliveira, three films any serious cinephile will probably want to experience: Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers June 3-6, Brillante Mendoza's Kinatay June 12-13 (both of which have been among the most contentious new films of the past year's film festival circuit) and Catherine Breillat's wonderful Bluebeard June 17-19. If Apichatpong, Korine, Mendoza and Breillat can be counted as contemporaries of Oliveira (and why not), and Oliveira was a contemporary of Vertov, Vigo and Chaplin, then the boundary between contemporary and "old" cinema is obliterated. What a refreshing thought!