Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Five Pleasing Pieces

As June comes to a close, I'd like to take a moment to note that the month has marked five years since I began this blog. At the time I was an underemployed cinephile with a few Senses of Cinema pieces under my belt. Looking for a way to channel my cinephile energies in a locally-oriented cinema-phile way, I decided to start a blog and begin writing. I borrowed the title of a 1955 gangster film (that to this day I still have never been able to see) because I thought it sounded cool, and started posting entries, usually one or two per week. I had no idea whether I would attract readers, but pretty soon indeed I did (I suspect thanks to google and to David Hudson more crucially than any other factors). Thinking of all the super-intelligent friends I've made, both online and "in real life", all thanks to the inter-connectivity of blogging, gives me chills.

I'm no longer under-employed; in fact I work six days a week at two separate and unrelated jobs now. So I don't have the time and energy to post pieces at Hell On Frisco Bay as often as I want and should. I've been able to parlay the blogging into other film-related writing projects, and I still even contribute to Senses Of Cinema on occasion (expect something in the next issue). This inevitably siphons time away from potential blogging. And I've directed a lot of my cinema-phile energies into microblogging; my twitter feed is more than just a valve for releasing the latest breaking news on the Frisco Bay filmgoing scene. It's also something of a distraction from this blog. I'd like to find a way to bring more balance to the two activities; the blog is for better or worse a much sturdier archive than the fleeting tweets, but the latter provide the instant gratifications of being read and passed on with more apparent frequency. It's all a constant work in progress.

A fifth anniversary seems as good a time as any to go back into my archives, including those of the first incarnation of this blog (long story) to find a few pieces that feel, for whatever reason, like they deserve to be spotlighted once more. Though the information on this blog dates quicker than on many, I have written a few things that seem to me to be worth looking at again despite their age. So, here are links to five of my past pieces that I still find pleasing to read; hope you do too. In chronological order:

1. Ten Decades of Frisco In Film. If there's one theatre that inspired me to write more than any other during my first year or so of blogging, it's the Balboa Theatre, which I used to live less than a mile away from, and which for a while was bringing some of the most exciting repertory and calendared programming to town. Neither of those situations is true any longer, as I live in the Mission District and the Balboa has largely become a venue for heavily advertised first-run fare with only the occasional special event (like this Friday's). But in April 2006, they screened the second of two series devoted to films set and/or shot in Frisco, and I used the occasion to talk about some personal favorites in that huge category of cinema.

2. Open Letter. When founding Hell On Frisco Bay I thought I might adopt a more cynical, embittered tone of voice than I naturally fall into. But I quickly realized that I'm more comfortable accentuating the positive, even to the point of verging on Pollyanna-ish-ness (is that even a word?) But even I have a rant in me once in a while, as I perhaps best proved in December 2006.

3. For Those Who Have Seen Tropical Malady. I mean it with that title; if you haven't seen Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul's 2004 film Tropical Malady, well, first go watch it, then click the link. Though I'm extremely grateful for the time and effort donated from other writers I've been honored to share this space with over the years, and from the film people I've been able to interview, I'm particularly pleased with how this more informal collaboration turned out. In April 2007 I attended an event with a favorite filmmaker present, and reported on it while interjecting my own commentary along the way.

4. Steamboat Buster. I've contributed to a few blog-a-thon events, and generally find they inspire me to be more focused in my writing, and interesting to audiences outside my usual 'beat'. I think I'm proudest of my contribution to Thom Ryan's Slapstick Blog-A-Thon from September 2007. Thom is one I've been lucky enough to meet and converse with in person. He even provided a documentary account of our "irl" encounter.

5. The Cardinal. I don't write reviews these days, not really. It's a form I'm just not all that interested in, not when there are so many talented others out there who really care about preserving, honing, and expanding the craft of review-writing. I usually prefer writing something else a little closer to history than to criticism, or to news than to prose. This piece from December 2009 comes about close as I feel comfortable coming to writing a film review.

Note: image at the top of this post is from Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces, a new print of which is part of the July calendar for both the Castro Theatre and the Pacific Film Archive.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

VIZ Cinema

Last Friday, Akira Kurosawa's 1948 film Drunken Angel played in two different Frisco Bay film venues, on opposite sides of the Bay Bridge. I'd never seen it, but its importance to the story of Kurosawa's career as a film director made me certain I wanted to finally change that. Well known as the first film Kurosawa made with actor Toshiro Mifune, it was also the first film he made with composer Fumio Hayasaka, who would provide the music for all of his films other than the Quiet Duel (which was scored by Akira Ifukube, later of Godzilla fame) until his death in the middle of his collaboration on 1955's I Live In Fear. Hayasaka's friendship with American journalist Donald Ritchie provided the latter with an opportunity to visit the Drunken Angel set during its filming; Ritchie would soon become the foremost English-language critical authority on Kurosawa, a position he holds to this day. I also had heard it was a strong film; Ritchie has quoted the director himself as saying, "In this picture I was finally myself. It was my picture. I was doing it and no one else."

In Berkeley, Friday's screening of Drunken Angel was, along with a showing of the director's international breakthrough Rashomon, the kick-off to a complete Akira Kurosawa retrospective at the venerable Pacific Film Archive, organized for the occasion of his centennial and lasting until the end of August. I plan to take in many of the films in the PFA series over the next few months. But on this night I decided to stay on this side of the bridge, in Frisco's Japantown, where a relatively new cinema called VIZ picked Drunken Angel to lead off a twelve-film tribute to three great Japanese directors: Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi.

The VIZ Cinema, located at 1746 Post Street, (by the former site of Japantown Bowl) is an ideal screening space. One hundred and forty-three comfortable, raked seats fill a medium-sized theatre equipped to show 35mm and digital formats. Audiences seem to be of the respectful sort; this may be helped by the fact that like the Roxie, the venue is equipped with cell-phone blocking equipment capability. Delicious Japanese snacks are available from the helpful staff at the concession stand. Ticket prices are slightly higher than at the PFA (especially for PFA members) but it's possible to buy passes for multiple films at somewhat discounted prices. The restrooms even have heated toilet seats (!) which seemed odd to me, but might be useful information for someone out there to know.

Since opening last fall, VIZ Cinema has mostly been screening the latest Japanese pop cinema, of the sort associated with the manga-publisher-turned-DVD-label VIZ Pictures. I caught Shinji Aoyama's Sad Vacation there late last year, and kicked myself for missing a chance to see my thus-far favorite VIZ release, Linda Linda Linda when it played there in 35mm for a week or so. But after playing host to the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival this past March, the theatre has begun branching out into other sources of film programs. Last month they screened four Godzilla films from the early 1970s, but this month's Kurosawa/Ozu/Mizoguchi set is to the best of my knowledge the theatre's first go at playing black-and-white films from an even earlier era. One of the main reasons I elected to see Drunken Angel at VIZ instead of the ever-reliable PFA was to evaluate its presentation of older film prints using now-considered-outdated technical specifications.

I must admit I was a bit disappointed. Drunken Angel, like just about every talking picture made before 1953, was made to be shown in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio- that is, framed in approximately the same shape as all televisions were made into the 1990s, when widescreen TVs began to appear. However, VIZ projected the print at something closer to 1.6:1 or 1.7:1- noticeably wider formats closer to what we've grown used to both in theatrical presentations and for most home video viewing (many people prefer their widescreen televisions to be filled with image even when watching films from the 1930s and 40s, so they stretch or zoom to make the image fit when watching 1.37:1 a.k.a. "Academy Aperture" films). The result was that, for the first few moments of the film, subtitles at the bottom of the screen were being cropped out of the screen. The projectionist made an adjustment that moved the top part out of view instead, but this only shifted the distortions of Kurosawa's image compositions, most noticeably when character heads at the top of the frame went missing.

Reports from others confirmed that all three of the VIZ showings of Drunken Angel over the weekend suffered from these aspect ratio distortions. The projectionist indicated that a certain kind of projector lens was needed -- one that was not available on the VIZ premises. I decided to watch Drunken Angel again on DVD, both to soak up the correct image framing and to hear Donald Ritchie's commentary track, which was as enlightening about his own pathway into Kurosawa and Japanese cinema as it was about the film itself. On Wednesday, i found time to return to VIZ myself, to watch a widescreen film I knew would be unaffected by any lens issues: the Bad Sleep Well from 1960. It looked great (though I contend it's one of Kurosawa's weaker films, at least of its period -- too heavy on exposition and too tonally mismatched in its approach to integrating gravely serious social commentary with comic relief). I decided to stick around to watch the 1949 film (dare I say noir?) Stray Dog, which I'd seen years before at the Castro Theatre but had somehow forgotten most of the detail from.

Hallelujah. The required lens was apparently now in hand, as the 35mm print of Stray Dog was perfectly projected in its "Academy Aperture" glory. And after seeing it again, I was ready to call it one of Kurosawa's greatest achievements: a near-perfect synthesis of suspense, complex characterization, visual storytelling, and one of Fumio Hayasaka's best scores. I'd also rewatched Kurosawa's vastly-budgeted, near-universally-acclaimed film from the other end of his career (1985), Ran the night before, and though it was certainly a major, and perhaps even a more personal, achievement for the director, there's no question that I enjoyed the scrappy Stray Dog more thoroughly, and had even been more astonished at its technical prowess and thematic daring.

The upshot of this week's experiences with Kurosawa is that, though I still want to frequent the PFA's centennial tribute, I'm equally excited to be able to recommend the VIZ Cinema's eight screenings of Ozu and Mizoguchi films, including each director's most-widely canonized masterpiece, Tokyo Story and Ugetsu Monogatari, respectively. All eight films were made to be seen in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio, that I now feel confident the venue will honor. I'm so glad they responded to this issue in time for me to fully enjoy the rest of the month's films there.

Because the perhaps sole-remaining deficiency of the VIZ Cinema is its clumsy-to-navigate website, this week's schedule of Ozu films follows:
Saturday, June 12, 4:30 PM : Tokyo Story (1953) / 7:30 PM : Early Spring (1951)
Sunday, June 13, 12:15 PM : Early Spring (1951) / 3:15 PM : Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947) / 5:00 PM : The Only Son (1936) / 7:00 PM : Tokyo Story (1953)
Monday, June 14, 5:00 PM : The Only Son (1936) / 7:00 PM : Tokyo Story (1953)
Tuesday, June 15, 5:15 PM : Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947) / 7:00 : Early Spring (1951)
Wednesday, June 16, 5:00 PM : The Only Son (1936) / 7:00 : Early Spring (1951)
Thursday, June 17, 5:15 PM : Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947) / 7:00 PM : Tokyo Story (1953)

And the Mizoguchi schedule:
Saturday, June 19, 2:00 PM : Sisters of the Gion (1936) / 3:40 PM : Ugetsu Monogatari, 1953) / 5:40 : Street of Shame (1956) / 7:30 : Utamaro and His Five Women (1946)
Sunday, June 20, 12:30 PM : Utamaro and His Five Women (1946) / 3:00 PM : Street of Shame (1956) / 5:00 PM : Ugetsu Monogatari, 1953) / 7:00 PM : Sisters of the Gion (1936)
Monday, June 21, 5:45 PM : Sisters of the Gion (1936) / 7:30 PM : Ugetsu Monogatari, 1953)
Tuesday, June 22, 5:00 PM : Ugetsu Monogatari, 1953) / 7:00 PM : Street of Shame (1956)
Wednesday, June 23, 5:00 PM : Street of Shame (1956) / 7:00 PM : Utamaro and His Five Women (1946)
Thursday, June 24, 5:00 PM : Sisters of the Gion (1936) / 7:00 PM : Utamaro and His Five Women (1946)