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!