Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Two Eyes Of Brian Darr

Thanks for indulging my annual round-up of Frisco Bay cinephiles' favorite repertory/revival screenings of 2012. I hope you've enjoyed reading what I've posted here so far. The full list of contributions can be found here

I'm not quite done; this year, I'd asked respondents to name one brand-new film that they saw in a local venue in 2012, in which something about the venue conspired with the film to make for a particularly memorable and enjoyable experience. Not every contributor responded to this request, and  I decided to collect all the responses to this question into a single post, which I'll be putting up soon. 

But for now, here is my own list of ten favorite films from our cinematic past, revived on Frisco Bay cinema screens in 2012, in the order I saw them:

Underworld USA
2012 started off like gangbusters, literally, with the 10th Annual Noir City festival at the Castro Theatre, and particularly with this late (1961; some would say post-) noir by the iconoclastic Hollywood figure Sam Fuller. It immediately became my new favorite Fuller film, as it expresses both his cynical view of the connections between American crime and business, and his tabloid-headline expressionist approach to cinematic language extremely authentically. I now have the perfect starting recommendation for anyone wanting to explore the black-and-white precursors to Scorsese's & Coppola's gangland epics.

Four Nights Of A Dreamer
At the Pacific Film Archive's near-complete Robert Bresson retrospective I was able to plug several of the most yawning gaps in my experience with the French filmmaker. Undoubtedly, his films are challenging and I must admit I've in the past had better luck approaching an initially satisfying comprehension of them in the home video arena, with its pause and rewind buttons, than in cinemas. But these films were made for theatres, and for the first time I finally felt I had a cinematic communion with a Bresson print, truly sensing myself on the right wavelength with the film's every move. Perhaps it's because this 1971 film is Bresson's most impressionist work, or perhaps because I was previously familiar with his source material (Dostoyevsky's White Nights.) At any rate, I'm especially likely to treasure this rare screening as Four Nights of a Dreamer is reputedly troubled with rights issues holding up a proper DVD release. 

Wagon Master
When Quentin Tarantino made recent comments about hating John Ford, both the man and the filmmaker, for his racism, I instantly thought of the Ford films which (unlike, say, Stagecoach), present a far more complicated picture of his racial attitudes than is often acknowledged. Consider Fort Apache, which illustrates the folly of the U.S. Cavalry treating Chiricahuas as nothing more than an enemy army, or The Searchers, in which John Wayne portrays a racist as a kind of victim of his own psychotic, narrow hatred of The Other. Having seen it as recently as March at the Stanford Theatre, I thought of Wagon Master as a vessel for Ford's most explicitly anti-racist statement of them all. The scene in which a Navajo (played by the great Jim Thorpe) is translated (by the late Harey Carey, Jr's character) to proclaim that white men are "all thieves", might not be so remarkable if it weren't for Ward Bond's sympathetic character's agreement with the sentiment. But race is only a part of what this grand, lyrical, often heartbreaking 1950 film is about. Its band of travelers, each holding diverse values and goals but all sharing in the hardships of the road, is a beautiful microcosm for the tolerance and compromise we must learn to cultivate to exist harmoniously in this world.


Insiders have been indicating for a couple years, that we are now seeing the final days of film-as-film screenings. Some people have suggested that the film reel might make a resurgence as did the vinyl record did even after tapes, compact discs and ultimately mp3s threatened to wipe it out. I'm not sure if that's possible, but if it's going to happen we may need to see more creative uses of the film projector in order to realize that its operator (the projectionist) can be an artist equivalent to a great DJ. 2012 was a big year for me to experience multi-projector performances, from seeing the cinePimps and (full disclosure: my girlfriend) Kerry Laitala at Shapeshiters in Oakland, to a dual-projector ephemera duel between Craig Baldwin and Stephen Parr at the Luggage Store, an event poignantly held on the day Andrew Sarris died. Though this face-off had me imagining a beguiling future in which curator, performer and auteur become fused into one role, even it couldn't hold a candle to the Silent Film Festival's Paramount Theatre presentation of (to my knowledge) the first film foray into multi-projector "performance" spectacle: the final reel or so of Abel Gance's Napoléon, which I wrote about here. Though the three projectionists involved in this event were performing an act of 85-year-old reproduction and not new creativity, the precision of their coordination is something any performer might aspire to if they want to truly set audience's eyes agog. 

Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle
Too many of the locations for these "best of 2012" screenings sadly sit dormant already in 2013. New People/VIZ Cinema is one; the year saw the end of the San Francisco Film Society's experiment with turning it into a year-round screening venue. A week-long engagement of this delightful Eric Rohmer film was a real highlight of the year for me; the fact that it's gone unmentioned by other "I Only Have Two Eyes" contributors helps me understand that the state-of-the-art venue never was able to catch on as a repertory venue. Surely I'm not the only one who would consider this 1987 comedy about two young Frenchwomen with opposing but somehow complimentary backgrounds (made piece-by-piece while Rohmer was waiting for the right weather/light conditions for The Green Ray, which SFFS double-billed it with) to be among his high-water-marks, despite its episodic nature. Can't we consider the collections of A.A. Milne to be masterpieces? Mightn't The Martian Chronicles be as great a work as Fahrenheit 451

Land of the Pharaohs 
Here's where I really go out on a limb- or do I? I saw a lot of very great Howard Hawks films last year, thanks to hefty retrospectives at the Pacific Film Archive and the Stanford Theatre, but none made such a surprisingly strong impression as this film maudit did on the latter screen. It's the director's 1955 take on Ancient Egypt and the building of the Great Pyramid. I cannot help but wonder how many of the critics, historians, and cinephiles who continue to perpetuate its reputation as the one time the versatile Hawks took on a genre he couldn't handle, have seen it projected in 35mm on a big screen, as it was clearly made to be seen. Though the director was reportedly none-too-fond of it, his frequent screenwriter Leigh Brackett once went on record calling it one of Hawks's greatest films. Whether or not I'm willing to go quite that far on only a single viewing, I feel certain that seeing this visually stunning story of hubris and political machination unfold in Cinemascope above my eyes was one of my greatest film-watching experiences of the year.

Five Element Ninjas
"Someone like Jean-Luc Godard is for me intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung fu film." I don't wholly endorse this quote by Werner Herzog, as I love Godard (on most days, more than I do Herzog), but I can't deny that I got even more pleasure and maybe even more intellectual stimulation from watching this 1982 Chang Cheh tale of vengeance for the first time at the Roxie than I did from rewatching Week End at the Castro earlier in the year. Chang's output is more uneven than Godard's but his best films, and this is one of them I reckon, are as excited about the possibilities of cinema (here he gets some very eerie effects out of fish-eyed pans, and has a simple but brilliant solution to emphasizing ninjas' skills at silence) and steeped in complicated codes (in this case numerology and Chinese-style alchemy) as any canonized art film. I hope hope hope that collector Dan Halsted makes very many future visits to town with more of his rare Hong Kong 35mm prints in hand.

La Cérémonie
Another screening of a brutal masterpiece by a director with the monogram CC. Here it's Claude Chabrol directing Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert to the hilt in a slow-boiling tale of (mostly) quiet class warfare in a French village. There's a methodicalness to Chabrol's depiction of wounded psyches in a feedback loop hurtling toward catastrophe that makes this 1995 film seem like a model for the clinical works of Michael Haneke or Bruno Dumont. But nothing I've seen from either of those mens' ouevres quite approaches what Chabrol is able to coax out of Bonnaire and Huppert here. Like many local cinephiles I frequently find Mick LaSalle infuriating, but I'm so glad his recent book publication created the excuse to play this as part of a Roxie (and Rafael) series of actress-centric French films.

Only Yesterday
It was with great pleasure and a bit of wistfulness that I took nearly-full advantage of the Studio Ghibli series that played this fall at Landmark's Bridge and California Theatres, catching up with all the films that I'd never seen before (except one, My Neighbors the Yamadas) and revisiting most of those I that had. The pleasure is obvious to any fan of Hayao Miyazaki and his cohort; nearly all of these films are wonderful, unique blasts of color in motion, with not-too-saccharine stories that stick with you for days and weeks and months after viewing, even when in such a near-marathon viewing situation. The wistfulness comes from the fact that the Bridge seemed already on its last legs as a viable Frisco Bay venue, and in fact announced its closure a couple months later, and that Berkeley's California Theatre was on the verge of decommissioning its 35mm projection equipment in favor of all-digital equipment shortly after the series ended. Also from the fact that I knew that with this series I no longer have any more unseen Miyazaki features to view for the first time (until his next one anyhow). But to mitigate this, this series turned me into a fan of fellow Ghibli director Isao Takahata (who also has an upcoming film), largely on the basis of my admiration of his 1991 adaptation Only Yesterday, which I saw at the Bridge. As much as I love Miyazaki's fantasy mode, Takahata's realistic approach here is in some ways more impressive; he creates two totally distinct yet believable palettes with the lush rural setting of its lead character's personal awakening, and the more subdued watercolor-style of her extensive childhood memory flashbacks. He even bucked anime tradition in his voice casting, built around the decision to record dialogue before animating rather than post-dubbing as is Japan's animation norm. The result is a film reminiscent in beauty and theme of Kenji Mioguchi's lovely 1926 Song of Home.

Sonata For Pen, Brush and Ruler 
Last but not least, another kind of animation seen in a (less-sadly) decommissioned venue, the Exploratorium's McBean Theatre, a shiny-ceiling-ed dome inside the Palace of Fine Arts that hosted a wonderful array of screenings over that museum's long stay in that cavernous venue. The Exploratorium is gearing up to move to a new location on Pier 15, and promises to have a made-to-order screening space. But no matter how wonderful it is, I know I'll miss certain aspects of the old McBean, and I'm so thankful that the museum's Cinema Arts department hosted a short series of Canyon Cinema films during its last few months open, as a kind of goodbye. I was able to catch the first and third of these programs, and loved getting a chance to see rarely-shown pieces by Alan Berliner, Gary Beydler, Stan Vanderbeek, John Smith (whose films I also got to see at PFA in 2012) and more. But the most astonishing of these was in the December program: Barry Spinello's 1968 Sonata For Pen, Brush and Ruler. Spinello is a painter and experimental musician, but the 16mm film strip serves as his canvas and master-tape. I'd been impressed by a few of his later works before (one of them, Soundtrack, screens at the PFA shortly with the artist in attendance) but Sonata is so exhilaratingly expansive, so joyfully elaborate, and so recognizably the product of one artist's immense effort that I now have a clear favorite of his films. As he once wrote: "It is my brain, and for ten minutes I expect (I hope, if the film is successful) that the viewer's brain functions as my brain." I think it does.


  1. Brian: Wagon Master is my favorite Ford, which is saying something, though I haven't caught quite as many Fords as the late President Nixon who claimed to have seen them
    Only Yesterday was the first anime I experienced, at a class in Berkeley, so it also holds a special place in my

  2. Man, my memory is so lousy. Underworld USA is so great. And everything in that Bresson series was great, but that one is definitely a favorite. Yeesh. Darr one ups the world yet again!

  3. Yet I feel one-upped by your Rivette pick too; so so bummed I let that YBCA stand slip through my paws.

    Larry, I'd just heard about the Nixon-Ford (John not Gerald) connection on this fascinating podcast. Or was it this one?