Thursday, January 27, 2011

My Two Eyes

I've been so pleased with the participation in this year's "I Only Have Two Eyes" project, collecting lists of favorite repertory/revival film watching experiences had in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2010 from 21 other Frisco Bay film-watchers. The entire set of contributions is collected here. But I haven't yet published my own list of ten. Here it finally is, in the order in which I saw them:

Outfitted with a series pass, I was able to catch more of Noir City 8 than any of its previous Castro Theatre editions. The best of the set, to my determination, was the this series opener, a still-underrated marital thriller directed by Andre De Toth. This searing critique of post-war America's stifling suburban ideal stars Dick Powell at his most embittered, with Lisabeth Scott and Jane Greer terrific in supporting roles. However, it's Raymond Burr who nearly steals the show as the extremely menacing villain of the picture, a role that prefigures his own future as one of filmdom's most effective heavies, as well as the terrorizing Burl Ives role that drives the action in De Toth's later masterpiece, Day of the Outlaw (which later in the year played the Roxie if unfortunately in a severely compromised 16mm print).

Only two things could have enhanced this year's complete Jacques Tati retrospective, held on both sides of the Bay at the Pacific Film Archive and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (with other Tati screenings at the Red Vic and Rafael): a supplimental 70mm screening of Playtime at a venue equipped to show the increasingly-uncommon format, and a showing of Tati's first feature Jour de Fete at a time that didn't conflict with my unavoidable non-cinephile activities. The plus side of the latter "defect" in the otherwise tremendous undertaking is that I still have an unseen Tati film to look forward to. Trafic, which I also had never seen until YBCA's screening in early 2010, is something of a spiritual sequel to Playtime, and nearly as great. Where the 1967 film wanders through Paris like a seemingly-directionles tourist, this one takes a more linear road-movie approach to its playful but cutting jibes at modern transportation and leisure.

That Night's Wife
In 2010 I was thankful that the VIZ Cinema provided numerous opportunities to revisit some of the best films by perhaps my most consistent favorite of Japanese directors, Yasujiro Ozu: Late Spring, Tokyo Story, Late Autumn, etc. But this Pacific Film Archive screening of Ozu's 1931 silent That Night's Wife, shown with an accompaniment by the superb pianist Judith Rosenberg, trumped even those screenings in opening a window to a younger filmmaker's creative range; the sequence of a vigil in a cramped apartment space shows just how radical (and dramatically effective) Ozu's approach to cinematic temporality could get.

More than any other cinema on Frisco Bay, the Stanford (or the St. Anford, as a friend recently re-Christened the venue) functions as a temple to one man's cinematic taste. Lucky for us, David Packard has great taste in 1930s-50s Hollywood (and British) cinema! I shuttled to Palo Alto more often than usual in 2010, and was particularly excited to see a 35mm print of the heartrending Make Way For Tomorrow, which I'd only ever seen on a bootlegged VHS tape before. That its previously-unfamiliar-to-me double-bill mate, William Wyler's Dodworth was nearly able to match Leo McCarey's masterpiece in its emotional pull, and even surpass it in its unpandering sophistication, seemed miraculous and still does months later.

I usually like to reserve slots on my own personal "I Only Have Two Eyes" lists for films I'd never seen before at all, but I had to make this exception this year, for this film that jumped most dizzingly highly in my estimation when finally viewed in 35mm. When I viewed it on VHS as a college student, it was my first exposure to Kurosawa and, indeed, to non-sci-fi Japanese motion pictures, though in fact at the time its 16th Century feudal mileu felt more alien to me than any animated robot or rubber-suited beastie. I'd never gotten around to revisiting it even after becoming a guarded Kurosawa fan, and still harbored the suspicion that it had been overrated by those who ranked it among his best films. But in 2010, "the Emperor"'s centennial year, when I was able to employ the VIZ & PFA to fill in a number of my Kurosawa-gaps (the Quiet Duel being my favorite new discovery) and revisit a couple favorites (Stray Dog, High & Low), it was the extended engagement of Ran at the Embarcadero which provided me with my most fundamental re-understanding of the master's bold artistry. It cannot hurt to know how closely the re-worked Lear story sometimes parallels Kurosawa's late-career struggles as a cast-off from the industry he did so much to build. It also cannot hurt to see those colors (all that blood-and-fire red!) cast in a glorious new print on a big screen.

Le Bonheur
Speaking of color. It seems fitting that I caught up with what I now think of as Agnès Varda's greatest masterpiece (though I love Cleo From 5 To 7, Vagabond and The Gleaners & I deeply) thanks to a PFA series devoted to preservation. Not just because it seems miraculous that these natural, vivid but never gaudy hues and cries could have been photographed in the mid-sixties, and restored lovingly for us today. But also because, in its way this painfully truthful fable is all about the possibilities and impossibilities of preservation and restoration of love relationships and families. Just drawing the film up in my mind again months after seeing it, I find myself shuddering to the memory of its beauty and its ultimate, still shocking agony.

The Chelsea Girls
I've never held much truck with the frequent assertion that the proper role of music in film is: not to be noticed. Becoming something of an aficionado of live musical scores to silent films has only solidified my position. It's harder to dispute that the performative element the projectionist provides to a film showing should be unnoticed if it's to be appreciated. But there are clear-cut exceptions, and The Chelea Girls is the most prominent one. With two projectors running reels side-by-side on the screen, with a fair amount of latitude available to toggle between soundtracks from the control booth, it's probably fair to say there can (and should) be no frame-definitive version of this Andy Warhol film, making a screening (this one was at SFMOMA) feel something akin to a maddening, exhilarating, frustrating, but somehow also illuminating concert experience. "Everything is more glamorous when you do it in bed," Warhol once wrote. I would hope he'd make an exception for watching The Chelsea Girls.

Pastorale D'ete
I could easily have made a respectible top ten, or twenty, or thirty, culling only from the locally-produced experimental short films I watched and re-watched as part of the still-ongoing Radical Light series in support of the fantastic book published last year. Supplemented by a number of SFMOMA screenings in the Spring (and a couple in the Fall), the Radical Light project made 2010 the year the filmic floodgates really opened for me, and the trickle of knowledge and appreciation I had for Frisco Bay's storied history of avant-garde film scenes became a hearty river. Any year allowing me to finally see Will Hindle's Chinese Firedrill, Kerry Laitala's Retrospectoscope, John Luther Schofill's Filmpiece for Sunshine, Dion Vigne's North Beach, Barbara Hammer's Dyketactics, Sidney Peterson's The Lead Shoes (three times!), Jordan Belson's Allures, Ernie Gehr's Side/Walk/Shuttle, Dominic Angerame's Deconstruction Sight and Premonition, Dorothy Wiley's Miss Jesus Fries on the Grill, Allen Willis, David Myers and Philip Greene's Have You Sold Your Dozen Roses?, Chuck Hudina's Icarus, and Frank Stauffacher's Sausalito, and to rewatch Tominaro Nishikawa's Market Street, Bruce Conner's Looking For Mushrooms, Take the 5:10 to Dreamland and a Movie, George Kuchar's Wild Night in El Reno, Curt McDowell's Confessions, Hy Hirsch's Eneri, Chris Marker's Junkopia, Gunvor Nelson's Schmeerguntz, and especially Bruce Baillie's The Gymnasts and All My Life (and meet the man himself), and just as especially Christopher Maclaine's The End (and become involved in an intensive collaborative project attempting to retrace Maclaine's steps and talk to survivors of his cohort, most notably Wilder Bentley II) is simply an astoundingly rich one. But above even all of these, it was a new restoration of Hindle's first film Pastourale D'été whose nine minutes burned most brilliantly into my retinal hippocampus during its PFA screening. Shot in the kind of hillside landscape I'd always incorrectly imagined to be typical of the famous Canyon, California until I finally visited the forested town last September, and edited to an Arthur Honegger composition on equipment built by Hindle himself, this nature study is the clearest justification of the zoom lens I've ever observed. The first film made by a director (scarcely) better known for his more claustrophobic later works, it won an award at the 3rd San Francisco International Film Festival in 1959.

Times Square
One of the most heartening developments on the Frisco Bay film scene last year was the re-emergence of the Roxie as a genuinely adventurous, calendered, repertory theatre that can play excellent host to imaginative events. The only known print of this feisty teenaged melodrama set against the punk and new wave scene in 1980 Manhattan provides a unique semi-documentary look at a very specific historical moment, but the film is also special because of how seriously director Allan Moyle takes the relationship between his two leads. Nicky Marotta & Pamela Pearl may represent the 'bad girl' and the 'daddy's girl' but they bust out of their archetypes thrillingly.

Braverman's Condensed Cream of the Beatles
I'm slightly embarrassed that after hearing about the place for years, it took my April move into a loft space shockingly nearby to Oddball Film & Video for me to actually start visiting this unique film archive and screening venue. I took in four of the locale's regular weekend evening shows, including a Saturday-after-Thanksgiving pair of not-exactly themed shorts programs compiled by Lynn Cursaro and Carl Martin of the Film On Film Foundation. Amidst delightful rarities like Red Ball Express, Doubletalk, and Zoo was Charles Braverman's (and Gary Rocklen's) psychedelic collage of music and graphics tracing the birth, growth and public separation of the Fab Four. Constructed between the Beatles' break-up and the tragic assassination that quashed all hope of a real reunion, this nostalgia head trip seems unlikely to ever be cleared for a commercial release in these intellectually proprietary times. It brought me waves of joy and reminiscence to my boyhood in a house where The Beatles ruled the record player over The Stones, The Beach Boys, and practically everybody else.

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