Monday, July 30, 2012

Chris Marker (1921-2012)

I've only been moved to attempt a filmmaker obituary blog post once before, but learning of Chris Marker's death this morning, just a day after his 91st birthday, compels me to do it again. For a compendium of information and criticism on Marker look no further than the incredible David Hudson, now blogging for Fandor. This piece, although it includes more links I think are well worth clicking, will be more about my personal history with Marker's work than about the man himself.

I've only seen eight films from his prodigious output, but each of them are more than just films to me: they're signposts of my own cinephilia. If there is a single film which transformed me from an essentially passive viewer and consumer of (mostly science-fiction and fantasy) movies as entertainment into someone compelled to learn about motion pictures as a form of artistic expression, it must be Marker's 1962 film La Jetée, which I first viewed on a videocassette borrowed from, I think, Blockbuster Video, after learning it was the inspiration for Terry Gilliam's then-recent 12 Monkeys. I'm not sure if I was hoping that seeing this earlier version would help me figure out some of the time-travel puzzle aspects of the Gilliam film, but La Jetée was like nothing I'd ever seen before- and certainly the first "art film" I'd really connected with. Marker's aesthetic strategy of using still photographs to convey images of narrative might have seemed like nothing more than a cost-saving shortcut to someone with my preconceptions of what a "movie" is, had it not been presented so masterfully. It opened my eyes to the notion that big ideas can actually be dwarfed by a huge Hollywood apparatus (as subsequent viewings of 12 Monkeys demonstrated, although I still am fond of the film) and that sometimes the seemingly simplest techniques can be more awe-inspiring than bombastic special effects.

Purely by coincidence, La Jetée will screen along with Maya Deren's Meshes Of The Afternoon, at a free noontime screening at SFMOMA next Tuesday, as part of the museum's ongoing Cindy Sherman Selects series.

The notoriously camera-shy Chris Marker spied in Wim Wenders' 1985 film Toyko-Ga
Each Marker film I've seen has opened my eyes in another way. Watching his 1985 documentary A.K., on Akira Kurosawa filming Ran, did as much to help me truly understand that film (and its maker)  as finally seeing it in a 35mm print (along with others in a large Kurosawa retro) did a couple years ago. Catching up with his 1977 A Grin Without A Cat reconfigured my conception of political filmmaking, and subsequently catching up with his 1963 Le Joli Mai years later re-reconfigured it. And then there's Sans Soleil. A film about life, death, memory, cinema, Japan, and San Francisco, at least as seen through Alfred Hitchcock's eyes in Vertigo, it's known as Marker's greatest masterpiece, and I have no objection to that. How could I, when I'm as in thrall to Vertigo as any cinephile (I'm thrilled the Castro Theatre is bringing it back in 70mm August 31 through September 3 as I haven't seen it in over a year) and I've been inspired by Marker's tour of its locations to take similar tours to see my city through filmmakers' eyes. A little over a year ago, I was convinced by visiting critic Adam Nayman to join him on a San Francisco International Film Festival-sponsored journey along Jimmy Stewart & Kim Novak's trail hosted by Vertigo expert Miguel Pendas, who writes about Marker's connection to his annual tours in a recent book:
I thought that I knew this Hitchcock film, but Marker opened doors into head-spinning interpretations that would never have occured to me. "The Spiral of Time," he called the film's metaphorical referent in the whirlpool of Madeline's hair, the swirling waters of San Francisco Bay, the tree rings of the Sequoia, the twisting dizziness of Scottie's acrophobia.
While wandering in the Mission Dolores cemetery, Pendas told us of his own opportunity to meet the famously-shy Marker, and Nayman cited Sans Soleil as his favorite film. It was, after all, just as much a tour of that segment of the Marker film that we were making. 

Marker shot at least one other film here on Frisco Bay, however, and it must surpass even Sans Soleil and La Jetée as my own sentimental favorite of the octet of Marker films I'm lucky to have seen. It's called Junkopia, and though running only six minutes in length, it has two credited co-directors, both local filmmakers who had worked on Apocalypse Now for Zoetrope Studios, the local film company which Marker visited during the shooting of Sans Soleil. John Chapman, a local documentarian who made Nicaragua: Scenes From The Revolution died in 1983 while working on a documentary about the island nation of Palau and its nuclear-free constitution. Marker's death leaves Frank Simeone as the last survivor of this Junkopia trio (although Simeone credits himself only as producer, not co-director, on his own website.) 

Growing up here in the seventies and eighties, I fondly recall every time I rode in a car toward Contra Costa County and beyond, the highlight of the drive was the stretch of bayside highway where artists built giant animals and other structures our of driftwood and similar found materials. It seemed that this collection of sculptures was new every time we drove by, like a rotating collection of works displayed in an art museum. But the Emeryville Mud Flats, as this makeshift exhibition site is called, was purged of its wooden wonders many years ago. So when I first saw the Pacific Film Archive's 35mm print of Junkopia before a screening of The Case Of The Grinning Cat, alongside my cinephile cousin visiting from New York City, I was agog that Marker and his cohort had not only documented some of these structures at a point (July 1981) when I might have driven by them myself, but done so extremely artfully. Unlike Marker's other films (at least those I've seen) there is no voice-over narration, and in fact the only words in the film besides the end credits are beginning title cards marking San Francisco's (not Emeryville's) latitude and longitude, and the seemingly-random voices recorded from static-y local radio broadcasts that appear on the soundtrack in the film's final minute or so, paralleling the visual introduction of contexts of so-called civilization: the racing automobiles, the first of the Watergate Towers, etc.

A television broadcast version of Junkopia is viewable at Ubuweb, and the short was also included on the recent Blu-Ray edition of the Criterion Collection edition of Sans Soleil and La Jetée. But seeing it in its native 35mm can't be beat; I'm lucky to have done so twice. The PFA screened their print again in 2010 at their launch of the release of Kathy Geritz/Steve Seid/Steve Anker-edited book Radical Light: Alternative Film & Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000. That book includes a terrific little paragraph on Junkopia written by Michael Sicinski, which I shall now excerpt:
A 35mm evocation by a visitor acutely attuned to the ability of detritus to speak our story, Junkopia is itself something of a castoff, relegated to a line or two in Marker monographs and passed over on the way to Sans Soleil. . . . The film departs from Marker's essayistic style, instead adopting the rhythms of experimental cinema. Still, its status as a standard-gauge court métrage has kept it out of dialogue with the tradition of co-op filmmaking. Is there no place where this film could possibly belong?
I hope it can, like La Jetée, belong on a local screen sometime soon. Any number of Frisco Bay cinemas would be appropriate venues for a proper Chris Marker send-off. If it can be organized anywhere near as quickly as next month's Yerba Buena Center For The Arts tribute to another politically-committed director, Kaneto Shindo, who died shortly after his own 100th birthday this year, I'll be impressed.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Silent Connections

2011's Academy Award-winning The Artist is long gone from theatres, even discount theatres like the Cinedome 7 in Newark, and is now available on DVD and on the free outdoor movie circuitLove or hate the film, pretty much everyone can agree that they hope the attention afforded this homage to 1920s Hollywood will translate into resurging interest in genuine silent-era movies among regular filmgoers and the general public. But few types of movies benefit from their presentation in restored prints at motion picture palaces as much as silent films do, especially when they're accompanied by live musicians (which, of course, The Artist wasn't, or should I say, hasn't been yet) as silent films do.

Fortunately, the 17th San Francisco Silent Film Festival begins tonight at the Castro Theatre- not this town's most opulent picture house built during the silent era, but certainly the grandest one that still plays movies. It's something of a homecoming for the SFSFF, which has rented the theatre twice a year since 2005, hosting a big summer extravaganza as well as a one-day winter event. This year the winter event was held at the Paramount in Oakland, and it was a production more ambitious as any the festival has attempted yet: a staging of a 5 1/2 hour version of Abel Gance's Napoléon complete with triple-screen finale and a full orchestra with composer Carl Davis flown in from London to conduct his score. But the festival's return to the Castro after twelve months is more than just a victory lap for Napoléon; it's also perhaps their most ambitious and exciting summer festival yet. Seventeen programs of films made  by at least seven national film industries, set on at least five continents plus the moon, backed by four small orchestras and at least three other expert musicians-- it will be impossible to know if any possible increases in attendance to this already-popular event might be due to interest sparked by The Artist or Napoléon, or just because the line-up is so strong.

If you're contemplating your first visit to the SF Silent Film Festival, be sure to read the Six Martinis And The Seventh Art blog for tips on how to survive the bustling festival atmosphere most comfortably. Those who desire more information about the provenance of the festival's prints than available on the festival website should be sure to read Carl Martin on the subject, bearing in mind he holds no quarter for digital projection or restoration techniques. Though I'm nowhere near as technically knowledgeable as Martin, I share concerns about the ongoing march into a digital-dominated cinephilia, discussed recently at an Italian film festival on a panel described here and available to view here. As I mentioned in my own previous preview, the SFSFF will be screening two of its features digitally (Wings and The Loves Of Pharaoh) and though I wish they were being presented on film, I'm certainly not going to skip these screenings on principle. Perhaps I'll even be convinced of the value of the new technology in certain circumstances.

It seems this year's free Amazing Tales From The Archives program is designed to convince the festival audience of the value of state-of-the-art digital restoration and presentation. As Michael Hawley notes in his excellent festival preview, Grover Crisp did a side-by-side comparison of DCP with 35mm prints in New York earlier this year, and he'll be doing a similar comparison Friday morning. Can we imagine a future SFSFF in which more than one or two programs are presented digitally? It may depend on how the audience reacts to this presentation.

Also on hand at the archival presentation will be Andrea Kalas of Paramount Pictures, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and prepared a new digital version of its Academy Award-winning Wings as part of the celebration. With no less than five Paramount features on the program, this weekend ought to make a strong case for that studio as the top company in 1920s Hollywood. I'm a huge fan of Paramount's The Docks Of New York, and very curious about The Canadian, The Spanish Dancer, and Mantrap, all of which, I'm pleased, are screening on 35mm.

With so many Paramount silents in the program, perhaps there was no room for a film from another studio celebrating its centennial: Universal. Though most of the silent titles in this month's New York tribute to that studio have played at recent SFSFF editions, I long for a chance to see Paul Fejos's Lonesome on the big screen and hope its recent Criterion DVD release doesn't make local programmers shy away from it. The Pacific Film Archive has its own tribute to Universal on its current calendar (along with retrospectives for Raj KapoorAlexsei Guerman, and Les Blank among other series) but no silent films are included. 
Photo courtesy of Alpha-Omega digital GmbH
Silent films do, however, factor into the new Stanford Theatre calendar, which will have four Friday night opportunities to hear organist Dennis James accompany 1920s cinema sprinkled amidst a 7-day-per-week smorgasbord of films made between 1939 and 1964. Two of these are masterpieces previously brought by the SFSFF: The Wind and Seventh Heaven. I have not seen Son Of The Sheik or Way Down East before, but I'm sure audiences who can't get enough Wurlitzer action at the Castro this weekend as James performs for The Loves of Pharaoh and The Mark Of Zorro will want to take biweekly road trips to Palo Alto this summer.

The Castro Theatre itself is about to celebrate its own 95th anniversary, and includes two great late silent feature films, Sunrise and City Lights, as part of its impressively diverse slate of repertory offerings during an impressively-programmed August that I hope will continue in a similar spirit through the rest of the anniversary year. With no word on musical accompaniment for these screenings, it is likely that both will be, like The Artist, sound-on-film presentations of the kind that became popular if by no means exclusive after the arrival of The Jazz Singer in 1927. A third silent film not visible on the above link, but that word seems to be out about elsewhere, is a 35mm presentation of the newly-exhumed color version of A Trip To The Moon by Georges Méliès, which will play with a DCP version of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey on August 26 & 27, with Bruce Conner's astonishing Crossroads on the bill on August 26th only. What a triple-bill for that giant screen!
A Trip To The Moon will also screen at the SFSFF this weekend, in color, and it will be accompanied by the extremely talented pianist Stephen Horne (who accompanies five other SFSFF programs this weekend!) This is part of the festival's closing night program, along with Buster Keaton at his most Dziga Vertov-esque in The Cameraman, with Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra providing music. British silent film fan Paul McGann, best known for his acting career in films like Withnail And I and Alien³, will read the text Méliès wrote to accompany A Trip To The Moon at fairgrounds and other 1902 screening venues. He will also be at the festival to narrate Frank Hurley's documentary on Ernest Shackleton's polar expedition, South, in the spirit of Shackleton's own presentations with the film in his day.

It's interesting to note which SFSFF films are co-presented by which local film organizations. Saturday night's The Overcoat is co-presented by both SF Cinematheque and by MiDNiTES FOR MANiAX, which tells me it should appeal both to fans of avant-garde filmmaking and to fans of under-appreciated seventies- and eighties-era gems like Car Wash, Phenomena, Assault On Precinct 13, and Halloween 3: Season of The Witch (to name the next four MiDNiTE movies I'm told to expect at the Castro on August 3, September 14, October 5 & November 2nd, respectively.) I've been hoping to see the film version of The Overcoat since seeing an A.C.T. Production years ago, but I really have no idea what to expect from it now. 

I'm also extremely eager for Sunday afternoon's screening of Erotikon, introduced by Jonathan Marlow of Fandor, and co-presented by the San Francisco Film Society, which usually presents a silent film or two at its own annual film festival or during its year-round calendar of events. So far they haven't shown too many silents on their SF Film Society Screen in Japantown, but they have been screening Mark Cousins' epic documentary The Story Of Film: An Odyssey over the past several Saturdays, with two more to go. And this summer has seen more repertory-style programming at the venue than we've seen in previous months, with more to come in August: Kinji Fukusaku's 2000 cult classic Battle Royale gets its Frisco Bay week-long theatrical premiere August 10-16 and the locally-made 1996 animation James And The Giant Peach plays a matinee August 11. The 1952 portmentaeu film Love in the City, with segments directed by a young Fellini, Antonioni, and five other Italian directors (including the still-living Dino Risi and Francesco Maselli) will screen August 17-23, and perhaps most exciting of all, Robert Bresson's neglected The Devil, Probably shows in a new 35mm print August 3-9.

I'm straining to think of Silent Film Festival connections to the current SFMOMA screening series, at which filmmaker Trent Harris is expected to be present for tonight's screening of his bizarre and brilliant "Beaver Trilogy", for the Yerba Buena Center For The Arts series of photography-connected short films by the likes of Agnès Varda, Arthur Lipsett, Ken Jacobs, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Hollis Frampton, Raul Ruiz, Jean Eustache, and others (also starting tonight), or for the music-centered documentaries sharing a screen at the Roxie tonight, Songs Along A Stony Road and Sprout Wings And Fly, which will also be attended by its filmmakers George Csicsery and Les Blank (respectively). But it's time for me to sprout a decent outfit and fly off to see Wings in a couple hours, so I won't strain any longer. Have a great weekend and hope to see you at the Castro!