Friday, January 20, 2012

Brian Darr Only Has Two Eyes

When I decided to roll out my annual round-up of reflections on the year in local repertory and revival screenings over the past week or so, I hadn't the faintest idea that it would sync up with a new flurry of Twitter conversation and media coverage of Time Warner shutting the doors to its vaults of 35mm exhibition prints in its holdings (which includes all First National and most classic MGM & RKO titles, as well as those produced with the Warner Brothers imprint.) It seems repertory theatre requests to screen The Shining (for instance) on film rather than on DVD are being denied. Although the Pacific Film Archive's current Howard Hawks retrospective and the quickly-upcoming Noir City both promise to screen numerous Warner-owned titles in 35mm prints, it may be that the prints all will be sourced from independent archives and not the studio itself. Such a trend may soon leave repertory as we know it in the exclusive hands of independent collections and not-for-profit organizations.

As bad as that sounds, as I hint at in my introduction to this year's "I Only Have Two Eyes" blog series, the eternal optimist in me feels convinced that both the demand for and supply of Frisco Bay repertory screenings will continue into the future, even if the process of connecting supply and demand shakes out into a new form. It's sad if a for-profit theatre like the Castro can no longer offer 35mm screenings of wonderful Warner-owned titles 2001: A Space Odyssey, Footlight Parade, Badlands, He Who Gets Slapped, Meet Me In St. Louis, etc. (all of which I re-visited in that space in 2011, some for the first time on the big screen) at everyday prices, without the muscle of a film festival's involvement in securing prints from a non-standard source. I look forward to seeing how it all plays out in the coming months, but for now, let me share with you my own top ten cinema screenings of films I'd never seen prior to 2011:

the Wrong Man
2011 began with a series that filled gaps in my cinematic experience I'd been quietly embarrassed about for years. Alfred Hitchcock films are a mainstay of the Castro Theatre programming; I love that the venue offers near-annual opportunities to see classics like Vertigo (which I savored once again during the venue's 70mm series in June.) But in January they showcased a dozen films that tend to be screened more infrequently. I was able to see nine of them which I'd never seen before on the big screen, in some cases never at all. All were various shades of great, and 1956's The Wrong Man proved to be the greatest. It centers on an ordinary man (Henry Fonda) thrust into extraordinary circumstances thanks to a mistake in identity. But the mistake leads not to the thrills and adventure of The Thirty-Nine Steps or North By Northwest, but to devastation. Based on a true story, and treated with utmost seriousness and even a Hitchcockian sort of realism, the film may be (perhaps barring the more personal Vertigo) the director's saddest, and most socially important work.

Beau Travail
I haven't done a full accounting, but my sense is that the Pacific Film Archive's Claire Denis retrospective last Spring, and Beau Travail in particular, received more mentions in this year's "I Only Have Two Eyes" wrap-up than any other selection. And no wonder. This poetic resetting of Herman Melville's story Billy Budd to the Horn of Africa is every bit the masterpiece I'd heard, and more. At the time it came out (at festivals in 1999, commercially the next year) I was living and working abroad, in a relatively remote (from cinephile culture, at any rate) region of the world, so I missed it even if I didn't miss all of the critical praise which (rightly) insisted that the big screen was the way to see it. So although I found a cheap copy of the DVD when a nearby rental store went out of business, I refrained from watching it until I could view it projected somewhere. It took a while. Sometimes waiting to see a film in a proper setting can set up disappointment, but not this time. My years of anticipation, and my decade of distance from my own time living in a foreign land, could only have made the film's strange beauty more profoundly and personally felt inside of me.

This, on the other hand, was something completely off my radar until the Roxie screened it in May as part of its third annual I Wake Up Dreaming series of Golden Age noir. Though I only attended a few, largely unmemorable films in this year's series, and picked Ruthless simply because it fit my schedule that week, it absolutely floored me with its technical virtuosity, its relative lavishness (for a 1948 Edgar G. Ulmer picture) and its sophisticated, lacerating assault on the "rags to riches" myth underlying our economic system. Critics have justly compared Ruthless to no less than Citizen Kane and I was equally reminded of, The Magnificent Ambersons, not just for shared thematics and aesthetics, but because, like that Orson Wells film, Ruthless manages to be a kind of masterpiece despite some very evident flaws that would sink most lesser pictures.

Carmen Comes Home
I spent many many hours during the first half of 2011 reading about, watching, and re-watching movies made by Mikio Naruse, Hiroshi Shimizu and particularly Yasujiro Ozu, to help me prepare an essay for the program guide of the Silent Film Festival, which screened Ozu's best-known silent film I Was Born, But... in mid-July. By the time the PFA's Japanese Divas series rolled around I'd completed my research, but I appreciated it nonetheless. Particularly this 1951 film by former Ozu apprentice Keisuke Kinoshita, starring the brilliant Hideko Takemine as a high-minded stripteaser who returns to her family's village, now notorious from her big city escapades. Japan's first full-color film and eye-poppingly so, Carmen Comes Home is a wonderful window into national values during the final year or so of the Allied occupation, and an opportunity to see some of Ozu's favorite actors (Chishu Ryu, Takeshi Sakamoto, Shuji Sano, etc.) hamming it up in a somewhat broader -and bawdier- comedy than Ozu's own comedies tended to be.

Three Ages
By reputation, the first feature film Buster Keaton directed (with his frequent early co-director Edward F. Cline) is not among his best. It's often repeated that its makers lacked confidence in its success, which is why it consists of three distinct stories intercutting between each other; if the film flopped as a six-reel feature, at least it could be reconstituted into three two-reelers, the form which Keaton was a surefire draw in. Assuming this risk-averse strategy was true, what's not often mentioned is that few slapstick comedians had successfully crossed over from shorts to features in 1923. Nor that the film Three Ages is famously spoofing, D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, had been created with the very same sort of strategy; intercutting four feature films worth of material into an epic, and Griffith re-edited two of its four segments (the Babylonian and modern-day episodes) into stand-alone features released three years after the full film failed to ignite box office records in 1916. Three Ages, on the other hand, stood on its own financially, both in its day, and on a late Summer evening last year when a huge crowd packed the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto to see Dennis James beautifully accompany a 35mm print on the Wurlitzer organ. Watching it in such an ideal setting, and laughing along with almost every gag, makes the gap in quality between this and Keaton's top-tier features (The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr., and what have you) seem extremely small; perhaps non-existent.

Curse of the Demon
I didn't see any familiar Frisco Bay cinephile faces in the healthy-sized crowd when I went to see this last September; perhaps there are few regulars of the usual haunts (the other venues represented on this list) who also check to see what's playing at the UA Berkeley on Shattuck Avenue. The regular Thursday night screening series there generally screens prints of more recent cult "classics" like The Professional and Labyrinth, so I initially wondered if a listing for this rarely-shown horror film was in error. But a confirmation phone call led to a BART trip led to one of the scariest and most thoughtful explorations of the supernatural I've seen. And no, the above image (which has haunted me since seeing it in a book my elementary school library) does not represent the overall tone of the film, which is one of the few examples I've seen of 1950s cinéma fantastique to truly earn its earnest gravitas. I'm only sad that, after seeing his three films made for Val Lewton and this, I no longer have any "straight" Jacques Tourneur-directed horror films to look forward to. Although I suppose there's Comedy of Terrors...

Migration of the Blubberoids
2011 was shaping up to be a great year for local screenings of George Kuchar pictures (In my head I can hear him say the word: "pict-shas"), with a beautiful presentation of Eclipse of the Sun Virgin, restored, at Crossroads and an extensive dual-retrospective with his twin brother Mike at the PFA, just the latest of many tributes the man received from Frisco Bay film institutions over the forty years he spent living here (the MVFF, SFIFF, and, with Mike, Frameline, for instance). Then, so very tragically for everyone who had befriended him, or even met him or been touched by his generous artistic spirit, he died shortly after his 69th birthday. Several venues hosted posthumous screening events; the SF Cinematheque-presented set at SFMOMA was a particularly well-curated selection of lesser-known videos and better-known film work, and the Canyon Cinema screening at the 9th Street Film Center was an amazing set of some of his most rarely-seen 16mm films. But it was at Artists' Television Access where in October I saw the piece that shattered my preconceptions about career arcs: a city symphony from his late-eighties in-camera-edited video period with the unusual but not uncharacteristic title Migration of the Blubberoids. This alternatively lovely and anxious portrait of the Kuchars' native Bronx at Thanksgiving-time, set to music from (according to a 1991 interview) "some kind of a King Kong movie" deserves to be more widely known and shown, especially to anyone unsure of whether George Kuchar could make "pict-shas" as vital, innovative, and formally satisfying in the second half of his career as he could in the first.

In Spring
Hmmm. Two city symphonies in a row on this list. Except that this one, like its cinematographic predecessor Man With A Movie Camera, might equally be called a "country symphony", or better, a "nation symphony". Ever since researching Man With A Movie Camera (also for the Silent Film Festival) I'd been dying to see the film that Mikhael Kaufman, the eponymous "Man" in that film, both as actor and as cinematographer, had directed himself after disagreements with his brother Dziga Vertov caused a rift between the two. When a touring Vertov retrospective arrived at the PFA this fall, I was very pleased to discover that, hidden away as if an Easter Egg, In Spring was to screen as a second feature to a Vertov I'd never been able to track down, Stride, Soviet! Watching them together the Vertov felt overly deterministic and repetitious, but the Kaufman soared with visual lyricism. Pianist Judith Rosenberg improvised first-class musical accompaniments to them both (and to the other Vertov silents I saw in the series) but when the evening was through I began to wonder if the wizardry of Man With A Movie Camera might have been cast under its cinematographer's influence more than its nominal director's. Although the retro proved that Vertov's own talent shone through in some the sound films made after the dissolution of the brotherly collaboration: particularly Enthusiasm (which I'd only before seen on a terrible VHS transfer) and For You, Front!

Through The Olive Trees
It's getting late and this post has gotten long. So I won't say much about this 1994 masterpiece by Iran's foremost director Abbas Kiarostami, working at the peak of his powers. I will say I'm so thankful that the PFA provided an opportunity for me to finally catch up with it, as such opportunities are few and far between in this country without resorting to quasi-legal methods. Why? It has something to do with Muriel's Wedding of all movies, at least according to Jonathan Rosenbaum's book Movie Wars.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg Just as I was sending out e-mail invitations for this year's "I Only Have Two Eyes" project, and putting the finishing touches on my own list, I went with moderate-to-low expectations to the Castro to see this 1964 musical on the third-from-last day of 2011. I knew it was the best-known film of Jacques Demy, a director I'd had mixed results exploring, and that its recitative musical style had been aped in at least one much more recent French film I'd seen, liked, and largely forgotten (Jeanne And The Perfect Guy). I was prepared for a pleasant time out at the movies: pretty music, pretty actors (Catherine Deneuve), pretty colors, a small French town, all there. I was fully unprepared to get so involved in the characters, for the waves of complex emotions the film would elicit, and for the brilliant ending, perhaps as heartbreaking as the finale to Demy's wife Agnes Varda's Le Bonheur, released a year later (and featured on my "I Only Have Two Eyes list from last year). One might say the French New Wave was about being inspired by the best Hollywood films to make something completely new and different and even subversive, rather than blandly aping Hollywood's worst traits on French sets, as the Cahiers Du Cinema crew frequently accused their forebears of doing. This, then, is a perfectly New Wave film. And, perhaps, a perfectly perfect one.


  1. That news about Time Warner's archive is shocking! And thank you for mentioning George Kuchar. He is too great not to get talked about, especially posthumously.

  2. I agree, shahn. I'm glad I wasn't the only one who mentioned his works in my wrap-up. Incidentally, I believe Migration of the Blubberoids is the first video work I've ever included on one of my own "I Only Have Two Eyes" lists.

  3. Tourneur did a fair amount of work for television - if you're jonesing for his horror check out the "Sign of the Zodiac" episode of THE BARBARA STANWYCK show or the "Night Call" episode of TWILIGHT ZONE. Chris Fujiwara says the latter's an essential Tourneur, and I gotta say I agree.