Thursday, January 20, 2011

Terri Saul's Two Eyes

Since my own two eyes were not nearly enough to see and evaluate all the repertory/revival film screenings here on Frisco Bay, I'm honored to present local filmgoers' lists of the year's favorites. An index of participants is found here.

The following list comes from artist/writer Terri Saul, who blogs at Sister-Rye:

1) GOD’S WEDDING (Portugal, 1999)
Directed by João César Monteiro
Seen at the Pacific Film Archive on October 9th, 2010, at 8:10pm
Part of the series Elegant Perversions: The Cinema of João César Monteiro

Monteiro (lead actor, writer, and director) plays a ravenous and emaciated bag of bones who lusts after a tin of sardines, then carelessly throws them in a river, like a satiated elitist who has never known hunger. An angel delivers power to our anti-hero João de Deus in the form of a suitcase full of cash. de Deus then leaves it behind, unguarded, to rescue a drowning woman and deliver her to a nunnery.

Later in the film the two reunite for a sumptuous meal she prepares for him (perhaps as a way of thanking him for saving her life). de Deus piles up food on his plate, bit by bit, arranging each piece carefully and with great anticipation. He then takes one bite and quickly sends it away, wiping his lips with a well-starched napkin as if he had eaten the entire mound. I wonder if he represents a ghost in purgatory, unable to consume earthly meats.

Like a more depaucherous Chaplin’s tramp, de Deus lives in the moment. Whether suddenly rich (by no fault of his own), or sleeping in the park (though not during a picnic), his devil-may-care persona remains intact and unshaken. When his merely visual appreciation of gluttonous delights is captured (leaving the audience to drool), or when the beginning of a sexual encounter is just getting hot, it turns out he cannot eat, perform, or experience orgasm.

Monteiro casts himself as an undeserving and unappreciative recipient of miraculous blessings he then tosses off, neglects, or abuses. From the Harvard Film Archive I learned that João de Deus is “named for the Portuguese-born saint of prostitutes, the infirm, and fishermen,” but that he is “a wholly secular figure.” At one point, de Deus experiences “a hard-on attack,” something like a magical boner that literally blows him over in a garden path, although he’s impotent while waiting for his lover in bed. In another scene, our hero consults the animated stone face of a Homeric-looking god who emerges from some sort of altar-hearth, referring to Monteiro’s appreciation of ancient myth, folklore, and poetry. Late in God’s Wedding, de Deus finally gives in to his cravings for food while erotically eating a pomegranate, ripping it open with his bony fingers, while engaging in a frenetic display, pomegranate juices dripping down his wiry beard.

Like other pictures on this list, disappointment and absurd hilarity drive our unconventional heroes or heroines to candidly explore long pauses, beautiful interruptions, shifting loyalties, unexpected gains and losses, and everyday breaks, with the cool gaze of an uncut and uncensored clip of film. A number of these movies are memorials to idiosyncrasy, uncommon hardships. Though sometimes tragic, they are never taken for granted by their solitary chroniclers.

Monteiro, and other directors here, remind us of the impermanence of wealth, governing bodies, flesh (Monteiro’s own wrinkled nudity contrasted with the youthful skin of his angelic lover is a prime example), sustenance, allegiances, and escape routes. I can’t help but scoff at the too many elderly male filmmakers who love to cast themselves opposite nubile young women.

During one episode of homelessness de Deus pretends to be a general in order to gain entry again to halls of power, reminding me of a film that comes later on my list, Jacques Tati’s Playtime, God’s Wedding being darker, containing more of the earthier bits, a film as outrageous as a fairy tale.

Moteiro prefers shooting in natural light. That being so, his photography has the natural glow of a Dogme shoot. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a great influence on the work of Pedro Costa.

Directed by João César Monteiro
Seen at the Pacific Film Archive on September 18th, 2010 at 6:30pm
Part of the series Elegant Perversions: The Cinema of João César Monteiro

Monteiro, the director himself, plays João de Deus, a voyeuristic, dirty-old-man living in a boarding house in Lisbon, Portugal. de Deus battles canker sores, a testicle-attacking menace (bed bugs), and his own uncontrollable urges to spy on and assault his bon-bon addicted landlady’s daughter. His lechery and circumstances worsen as the film progresses, as do the greed and games played by those around him. Monteiro shows us the ridiculous, sublime, perverse, self-deprecating moments that are usually hidden.

Collecting cast offs, de Deus (along with the camera) looks closely, meticulously at some piece of evidence the audience might find disgusting, using a magnifying glass, tweezers, a jam jar, or a monocle, to examine something as base as a discarded pubic hair. Our lowly hero lands in and out of mental institutions while remaining cool and fatalistic, emotionally detached. He seems always on the verge of escape from his ill-health, his insect-infested room, his poverty, his solitude, or the asylum populated with a false maniac and friend. Everyone in the yellow house is trying to avoid their own lives, the cash in their pockets, as well as the judgment of authority, the state, a deity, or the crowded community. Recollections of The Yellow House is well composed and poetically furnished, full of lyrical, dissonant magic and deserves to be his best-known film, although I responded with more enthusiasm to God’s Wedding. I wish I could go back in time and see the rest of the series.

Directed by Dziga Vertov
Seen at the Castro Theatre on July 16th, 2010 at 8:15pm
Part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, live accompaniment by Alloy Orchestra

This frenetically paced rhythmic early example of expressive montage, and postmodern self reflexivity (predating most examples of postmodernism), by the inventor of the kino-eye concept, and a day in the life of a city from sunrise to sunset, was flawlessly partnered with the crash bang sounds of Alloy Orchestra. Vertov’s fast cutting, bold juxtapositions, imploding of the Bolshoi, and dizzying games with scale and layering, all broke the boundaries of his “Kino-Eye” philosophy. The Castro was the perfect setting for experiencing Man With a Movie Camera beyond an academic setting.

From Senses of Cinema:
“Vertov proclaimed the primacy of the camera itself (the ‘Kino-Eye’) over the human eye. He clearly saw it as some kind of innocent machine that could record without bias or superfluous aesthetic considerations (as would, say, its human operator) the world as it really was.”
“Vertov’s concept of a self-reflective cinema, of the viewer identifying himself with the filmmaking process, would really only reappear at the end of the 1950s in the work of filmmakers like Chris Marker, Jean-Luc Godard, or in America, Stan Brakhage.”

Directed by Henry King and Sam Taylor
Seen at the Castro Theatre on July 18th at 4:30pm
Part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival with live accompaniment by Stephen Horne on piano

A beautiful example of silent film clichés and Norma Talmadge’s eyebrows in all of their arching glory.

From Distant Voices and Flickering Shadows:
“The subjects of prostitution, sexual favors and suicide would be prohibited (in American films) after 1934, with the enforcement of the Hays Code by Joseph Breen, but the idea of requiring a young woman to sacrifice herself as Mary Ann is can be found throughout literature… However, while literature asks a woman to sacrifice herself on behalf of the beloved or a loved one, the film requires Mary Ann to make her sacrifice (in part) for people who have made no secret of their contempt for her.”

Live music always makes the night complete. Attending the very loud silent film festival made me wish I could hear a contemporary sound-filled film played live, every sound-effect replayed by foley artists on stage with tools in hand.

5) YOJIMBO (Japan, 1961)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Seen at the Pacific Film Archive on July 24th, 2010 at 6:30pm
Part of the Akira Kurosawa Centennial

I managed to miss most of the Kurosawa retrospective at the PFA because I joined too many book clubs, while I didn’t finish much of my book club reading last year because I watched too many movies, not enough of them in theatres.

A Japanese cowboy, Kurusawa’s antihero Sanjuro rejects the idea sacred to a samurai story—allegiance to a master and a band of fighters. Instead the tricky individualist rebel pits one rag-tag band of outsiders against another in order to save himself. The backstage-bin costumes, theatrical bloody make-up, Toshiro Mifune’s pout, and close-up swordplay are guilty pleasures.
Like Monteiro, Kurusawa is another filmmaker who is as influenced by art, literature, folklore, and poetry as he is by other filmmakers.

6) HOUSE (Japan, 1977)
Directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi
Seen at the Red Vic on May 7th, 2010 at 7:15 pm

Words cannot describe how awesome and twisted this horror-fantasy cult classic is, with its terrible special effects, a story partially written by an eleven year old, a demon cat, a child-devouring cannibalistic aunt, and an insatiable piano who eats a girl named “Melody.” House is as weird as it gets. I nearly passed out from laughing while covering my eyes in horror.

7) YOU, THE LIVING (Sweden, 2007)
Directed by Roy Andersson
Seen at the Red Vic on January 3rd, 2010 at 7:25pm

Because of shipping problems the 35mm print didn’t arrive on time, so for those willing to stick it out, we had to watch it on video with a watermark; all the Vic could offer was a screener. The RV offered us discounts and were good sports, explaining to ticket holders the pros and cons of either missing the film entirely; coming back the next night; or enduring its superficial imperfections. Nevertheless, the poor quality of the digital projection didn’t keep me from enjoying this absurdist Swedish film, with life-clogging traffic jams, one-take vignettes of undiluted dark, northern humor, and brilliant performances by amateur actors. You, the Living includes my favorite fantasy wedding dream sequence, about which I unearthed this piece of trivia from IMDB:

“As a child, Roy Andersson witnessed the moving of about 100 houses from the bay of Skarvik to Gothenberg to facilitate the building of a new harbor. This involved putting the houses on logs and then rolling them to their new location. This is the inspiration behind the vignette of the rock star and his new bride whose cozy domestic scene appears to be on train tracks.”

Someday I hope to see this film as it was meant to be seen, on film.

8) PLAYTIME (France 1967)
Directed by Jacques Tati
Seen at the Pacific Film Archive on January 15th, 2010 at 7pm

Another anti-hero, another actor-writer-director (and another character oft compared to Chaplain’s tramp) Monsieur Hulot, played by Tati himself lives in a city of glass and employs architecture and urbanity as partners in comedic crime. This inventive film, set within a scale model built by Tati and great expense (and from which he never recovered) gives us a very different view of the mechanized nature of modern city life than Man With a Movie Camera does. Although I find them both to be extraordinarily playful.

During a visit to Paris (where Cinémathèque Française was hosting a Tati retrospective) my local friend told me the story of an uproar caused by the design of a promotional poster in which Tati was depicted sans pipe because of new tobacco laws. To adhere to the rules the graphic designer was asked to delete Tati’s pipe at once, placing a yellow children's windmill in its stead. Cinémathèque never heard the end of it.

9) HOME MOVIE DAY (Historic home movie footage, various places and time periods)
Seen at the Pacific Film Archive on October 16th, 2010 at 1pm

Where among other treasures, I first saw my recently deceased grandmother’s home movie of my mother in Taxco, Mexico at age 15, the day before she sneaked off for her first kiss, secretly floating on a strange boy’s surfboard at sunset, later getting in trouble for her vacation mischief. Most of what I’m telling you was taking place off-camera, revealed during my mom’s narration of silvery and sparkling boating and fishing scenes. The film was chosen to be a part of the curated set. It’s always a pleasure to sit near the curly-headed star of the film, and to meet other home moviemakers in person.

The audience was also treated to early shots of redwood forests near Eureka where a conservationist took a tour (sporting high heels, furs, and all) of the stands she wished to rescue. During a simple silent film in warm color of a suburban mother doing her laundry and hanging it out to dry in the bright Stockton sun, we heard live narration from the now grown daughter of the laundress about how happy she was to have captured her mother during a peaceful time in her life. Another piece of archival footage showed a Seattle family visiting the Olympic peninsula, shooting snow scenes with a very professional looking lens.

Home movie day is also a day where the audience and participants learn something about the archival process, how to preserve one’s personal celluloid.

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