Tuesday, September 18, 2012

South And North

Since my previous post on the Frisco Bay screening scene, two major pieces of news have caught the eyes of cinephiles like myself. First, the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto quietly began a new multi-calendar series last week. It's an extensive centennial tribute to Universal Pictures, focusing attention on the oldest of the Hollywood studios, which mogul Carl Laemmle formed out of his company IMP (Independent Moving Pictures Company) and several others after emerging victorious in his legal battle with the 'old guard' of American motion picture production: Edison, Bioscope, Vitagraph, etc. a.k.a. "The Trust". The first picture made at his Universal City studio after this formation, At Old Fort Dearborn, was released on September 28, 1912, and was itself a centennial commemoration of a War of 1812 battle taking place where Chicago would eventually be founded. Though this film (if it indeed exists) is not announced for the Stanford schedule, there are three silent film presentations between now and the end of the calendar: two early entries in the famous "Universal Horror" series: the spooky Cat and the Canary this Friday September 21 & Lon Chaney's famous Phantom of the Opera November 2nd, as well as Erich von Stroheim's 1922 drama Foolish Wives on October 12th. All three will feature Dennis James at the Wurlitzer organ, and will hopefully be followed by more Universal silent films in subsequent calendars.

The Good Fairy (William Wyler, 1935) screen capture from Kino DVD
The meat of the Stanford schedule over the next two months is not 1920s silents, however, but a healthy sampling of features from the 1930-1935 period, all on 35mm prints as usual at this venue. Essentially all of the surviving Universal Horror films from this period will screen, from famous titles like Dracula and the Mummy to lesser-knowns Werewolf of London and Secret of the Blue Room, paired on Halloween night. With quite a few films by melodrama master John Stahl (Magnificent Obsession & Imitation of Life make a double-bill of Douglas Sirk pre-makes Oct. 13-14) and a complete retrospective of James Whale's work from 1931's Waterloo Bridge and Frankenstein to his 1935 Bride of Frankenstein and Remember Last Night?, the series is ideal for auteurists. If this Wednesday & Thursday's pairing of Frank Borzage's rarely-shown but highly-regarded Little Man, What Now? with one of my very favorite William Wyler films (from a Preston Sturges screenplay) The Good Fairy doesn't entice you to Palo Alto I'm not sure what I can say. Maybe you have an excuse if you're immersing yourself in one of the two other current studio-focused film series happening in Berkeley right now. I was sad to miss Stahl's 1933 Only Yesterday last week but glad I caught Isao Takahata's 1991 film with coincidentally the same (English) title- it was as equal to the best films of Hayao Miyazaki as it was different from them, and it plays again at the California Theatre this Wednesday only.

The other studio-focused series in Berkeley is the Pacific Film Archive's Nikkatsu centennial, which I'm sad to say I haven't been able to attend any of yet. (How could I let myself miss a rare Mizoguchi film?) There are still quite a few screenings left to go however, including a Daisuke Ito chambara from the silent era and three Seijun Suzuki selections from the 1960s. Like Universal, Nikkatsu is still in action today, releasing films like Rent-A-Cat, which will screen nearby next month. This brings me to screening news #2: Last Wednesday's press conference and announcement of the program for the Mill Valley Film Festival happening in various Marin County venues from October 4-14. 

In Another Country (Hong Sangsoo, 2012) courtesy Mill Valley Film Festival
Though the press conference itself was underwhelming (why rent the Dolby Labs screening room and then show compressed clips with cut-off subtitles and obfuscating pixelation? Well, at least the festival trailer looked great.) the program itself more than made up for that. Quite a few of the festival circuit's hottest titles, by veteran auteurs and up-and-coming makers alike, are part of the MVFF program this year. Whether this is because the festival is celebrating an anniversary itself (its 35th) or because of other factors, I don't know, but there's no doubt I'm finding more to lure me on the trek North this year than I've ever seen on a prior Mill Valley program. I don't feel left out of hyped Eastern festivals, knowing that 7 highly-anticipated films from the New York Film Festival's main slate are set to play here in less than a month: Christian Mungiu's Beyond The Hills, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's Caesar Must Die, Antonio Méndez Esparza's Here And There, Leos Carax's Holy Motors, Ang Lee's Life of Pi, Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone In Love, and Miguel Gomes's Tabu. These are joined by more new films I have I hopes for, foremost among them the first screen team-up between one of my favorite international directors Hong Sangsoo, and one of my favorite international performers, Isabelle Huppert: In Another Country

I'm also curious to see Nor'Easter and Fat Kid Rules The World, both first features from American directors Andrew Brotzman and Matthew Lillard, respectively. I believe these are the first films completed with some assistance from Lucas McNelly and his ambitious A Year Without Rent project (full disclosure: my roommates and I contributed a night on a couch to this project) to have public screenings in the Bay Area. There's also The Wall, which comes to Mill Valley after screening at the Berlin & Beyond festival this month, a fascinating Frisco-focused documentary called The Institute, and the annual offering from the prolific local legend Rob Nilsson, whose films rarely screen in San Francisco proper, even when they're made here. This one is called Maelstrom and is set in Marin, making MVFF an even-more ideal showcase than usual. 

Tales of the Night (Michel Ocelot, 2011)  courtesy Mill Valley Film Festival

Thanks to the festival's timing on the "awards calendar" there's always a certain amount of "Oscarbaition" at Mill Valley, and this year Ben Affleck is expected to be on hand to excite people about his upcoming Argo and David O. Russell will be here with Silver Linings Playbook. But I'm much more interested in an Oscar-ineligible animated feature, silhouettist Michel Ocelot's first 3-D venture Tales of the Night, which screened in Frisco once last year, in French with English subtitles. I missed it with some regret but won't miss the subtitles when I catch it dubbed into English at Mill Valley this year. A recent viewing of the otherwise-excellent Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (which comes to the Castro next month) made me realize I haven't yet trained myself to read words on one focal plane while taking in stereoscopic action at the same time. Thoughtful dubbing is usually less damaging to animation than live-action work anyway. Note that Robert Bloomberg's 3-D short How To Draw A Cat, which screens along with Ocelot's feature, is, contra the festival catalog, not made by young Croatian artists. There is an animation workshop as part of the MVFF Children's Filmfest, and the other features in this sidebar will be preceded by shorts, but labeling How To Draw a Cat as such was a publishing error.

With all the treats in store, it may be a bit disappointing to learn that all the above-mentioned films will be screening digitally rather than in 35mm prints. This is the reality of film festival exhibition for the present and foreseeable future, however, and although the main MVFF venue, the Rafael Film Center, still retains its 35mm projection capability, they understandably also want to show off their recently-upgraded digital projection systems. To festival director Mark Fishkin's press conference promise that the festival screenings will look much better than the clips shown did, I can only say: they'd better! I feel it's worth noting the handful of titles that I'm told will be sourced from actual film reels and not DCP or other digital formats: the painter/film director biopic Renoir, Brazil's Xinga (also a biopic), Polish thriller To Kill A Beaver, and two of the selections in the shorts program entitled Crosseyed And Painless. And two of the retrospective presentations as well: the screening of 
La Jetée that will accompany the October 6th (but not the October 8th) showing of Emiko Omori's tribute to its departed director, To Chris Marker, an Unsent Letter, and the October 7th 35mm screening of Yoyo, a 1965 comedy co-written by Jean Claude-Carrière, and directed by and starring the all-but-forgotten French clown Pierre
Étaix- a pair mentored and introduced by the great Jacques Tati. If 
Étaix's name doesn't ring a bell his face may if you've seen Fellini's The Clowns, Oshima's Max Mon Amour, Iosseliani's Chantrapas, Kaurismäi's Le Havre, or (not bloody likely) Lewis's The Day The Clown Cried.

Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012) courtesy Mill Valley Film Festival
With the studios' all-or-nothing digital push, 35mm prints are disappearing from festivals all over- not just Mill Valley but household-name festivals like Cannes and Toronto as well. This is purely speculation, but it may be that the main reason why this year's MVFF line-up seems stronger than usual is that distributors are more willing to let digital versions of their films play at a regional festival like this than they were willing to send one of their few 35mm prints to Marin in the days when celluloid was king. Small distributors are giving in to pressure to "go digital" just as commercial cinemas are, and the whole film ecosystem as we know it may be unrecognizable in a year or sooner. I'm told a touring 35mm print of Holy Motors will grace at least one local Landmark Theatres screen about a month after it plays digitally at MVFF, but this may already be the exception to the rule.

All I know is, I'm determined to see e.g. Like Someone In Love in Marin County next month, even if it is going to be shown from a Digital Cinema Package (DCP). And if IFC distributes a print of it to a local arthouse sometime this winter or spring or later, I imagine I'll happily pay to see it again there as well. I mean, it's an Abbas Kiarostami feature set in Japan. Of course I'm going to want to see it at least twice! Now, off to buy my ticket befpre it goes to "rush" status...