Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Two Eyes Of Frako Loden

If you didn't attend some wonderful repertory/revival film screenings in 2012, you missed out. As nobody could see them all, I've recruited Frisco Bay filmgoers to recall some of their own favorites of the year. An index of participants is found here.  

The following list comes from Frako Loden, college instructor in ethnic and film studies and contributing editor to Documentary magazine.

Life is Short: Nikkatsu Studios at 100, Pacific Film Archive
This retrospective vies with French Film Classics (also at PFA, below) as the best and most extensive repertory series I attended in 2012. Both showed me films I’ve waited years to experience. Kawashima Yuzo’s 1956 Suzaki Paradise: Red Light District was a gratifyingly unpredictable melodrama on the miseries of post-World War II Japan. Makino Masahiro’s 1939 Singing Lovebirds was an astonishing, delightful integrated musical featuring samurai-film stalwart Kataoka Chiezo as a young ronin pursued by several girls. I got roped into sitting up in the projection booth providing real-time subtitle advancing for Suzuki Seijun’s outrageous 1964 Gate of Flesh, which gave me an intense appreciation for the exact time that an English title should appear in a shot. And now I’m completely in love with that film because of what we’ve been through together.

French Cinema Classics 1928-1960, PFA
I’ve long dreaded seeing Georges Franju’s 1949 Blood of the Beasts, but I’m glad this series forced me to. It’s a lyrical meditation on animal slaughter—something that seems cruelly impossible. I was viscerally unprepared for the horror and beauty of watching a white horse fall dead to its knees. It was also my chance to experience for the first time two unforgettable films: Jacques Becker’s 1952 Casque d’or, named for Simone Signoret’s golden gangster moll’s helmet hairdo; and Max Ophuls' 1955 Lola Montes, which left me speechless. It was during this series that I experienced a rare mixup on PFA’s part: they showed Marcel Carné’s 1946 Les portes de la nuit instead of the advertised 1938 Port of Shadows. I couldn’t be happier trading Jean Gabin for Yves Montand.

Always for Pleasure: The Films of Les Blank, Pacific Film Archive
In addition to serving the opening-night audience a pre-film helping of beans and rice—a Blank special effect since back when he wafted the smell of garlic through the UC Theatre lobby during his 1980s films—this series gave the much older me a chance to revisit most of Les Blank’s work. Not only do the films all hold up, but I like them even more for their freeform curiosity and willingness to let the subject control the rhythms of a scene.

At Jetty’s End: A Tribute to Chris Marker, 1921-2012, PFA
I finally got to see Marker’s 1977 essay film on revolutionary movements around the world, A Grin Without a Cat, and see how Fidel Castro really did like to readjust the mikes during his speeches.

A Century Ago: The Films of 1912, Rafael Film Center
This year’s films in this annual series, shown on a hand-cranked 1909 projector, emphasized the growing scope, speed and length of the movies. My favorite was a fake newsreel called Titanic, which instead of showing the actual passenger ship that hit the iceberg that year, displayed its more successful sister liner Olympic with her name sloppily rubbed out in every frame. A subplot featuring Teddy Roosevelt takes over, but the final shot (predating Life of Pi by a hundred years) urges us to shout three cheers for “a tiger!”

In a separate program at the Rafael, the 1914 Salomy Jane, shot in Marin County on a huge budget for its time, promised great success for the San Rafael-based California Motion Picture Corporation with a performance by long-forgotten Latina actress Beatriz Michelena, who later ran her own production company. Sadly, the works of both companies were destroyed by the explosion and fire caused by a boy’s tossed firecracker in 1931. Luckily, a print of Salomy Jane was found in Australia in 1996 and is her only surviving film.

Pretty much everything shown every year at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is terrific, but this year’s screening of William Wellman’s 1927 dogfight blockbuster (and first Oscar Best Picture recipient) Wings with Foley sound effects led by Ben Burtt was probably the most thrilling film event for me next to the festival’s historic presentation of Napoleon (magnificent and undeniably the repertory film event of the year, but I’ll let others rhapsodize about it). Brigitte Helm in Hanns Schwarz’s 1929 The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna took me by surprise. I didn’t think she could top her performance in Metropolis, but here her sophistication and subtle pathos overwhelmed me.

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