Monday, February 10, 2014

Two Eyes: Brian Darr

Thanks to all the contributers in my "I Only Have Two Eyes" wrap-up of repertory and revival screenings that happened in the San Francisco Bay Area during 2013, and thanks to all readers who have been patient with my more-protracted-than-usual roll-out of selections. I blame myself, not the loyal contributers, for having lost focus a bit there while I turned to other pressing issues (such as finding a new apartment in this crazy market- please wish me luck as I continue to search!) 

I also blame the oh-so-slightly-lower response rate this year as compared to prior IOHTE editions on my own organizational difficulties, as I've usually been better at finding new contributers as prior ones move away, become busy, etc. I don't want anyone to take lesser participation as evidence of the shrinking of the revival screening scene here on Frisco Bay. If you want to make that case, you may be able to but I'd hope you'd find a more scientific data set. I do know that there are many venues and countless noteworthy screenings that went completely unmentioned by any of the participants this year, which to me says that the scene is still quite robust.

There was no Napoléon that drew votes from a majority of respondents this year. If you look through all the lists indexed here you'll see that most films get mentioned only by a single person, and that every participant picked at multiple screenings that nobody else mentioned. There are some recurring venues, festivals, filmmakers, and even films, however, and I find it noteworthy that the most-commonly cited favorite was Roy Ward Baker's Inferno, screened in digital 3D at the Castro during Noir City 2013. This is certainly the first time in seven years that the most-popular title was a digital rather than 35mm screening.

Without further ado, here are my own choices of favorite repertory screenings from last year.

Faust (F.W. Murnau, 1926)

Though I usually try to focus on "new-to-me" films in this annual exercise, I sometimes let a title I'd seen previously slip into a slot. I suspect partially thanks to a slightly constricted variety of "new-to-me" 35mm film-going options, and partially thanks to the enthusiasm generated by my own daily blogging project (in which I tried to balance films I'd seen before with films I hadn't when selecting what to write about each day), I found myself revisiting more films than usual on cinema screens in 2013. There were so many that revealed so much more of themselves to me than ever before thanks to unique cinema screenings last year, but among them (Gun Crazy, Vertigo, Blow Up, the Long Goodbye, Pursued, Femme Fatale, Report) one stands out as particularly transcendent. I'd seen Faust before on home video and had even done a fair bit of research on its director Murnau when writing program notes for a San Francisco Silent Film Festival presentation of Sunrise several years ago. But I'd never appreciated the film's dark and majestic strangeness to the degree I was able to when that festival presented it at its annual Winter Event last February.  As much as I found the experience of seeing a 35mm print thrilling at the time (here's my day-after tweet), in retrospect the screening becomes even more special because a) Christian Elliot's magnificent musical accompaniment was the only full-fledged silent movie organ score performed on the Castro's jeopardized Wurlizter last year (Günter Buchwald's performance for The Half-Breed in July was a duet between himself on organ and on violin) and, on a more personal note, b) it was the last film screening I attended along with one of one of my best friends who died, far too young, later in the year.

Murders in the Rue Morgue (Robert Florey, 1932)

Forget all the nominal re-makes of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This Poe adaptation is the most expressively cinematic Hollywood film to have taken Robert Wiene's Weimar era classic as a model, though it goes in arguably even more bizarre directions than that landmark of silent horror. The teaming of French-born director Florey, German cinematographer Karl Freund with a cast including Bela Lugosi and Noble Johnson makes for a guignol experience at least as arresting, and certainly more outre than any of the other Universal monster or mad scientist movies of the era. As Dr. Mirakle says, "if you are looking for the usual hocus-pocus, just go to the box-office and get your money back." Here's my tweet following its screening at the Roxie Cinema back in March as part of a pre-code series I'm crossing my fingers will be reprised again this Spring.

Welcome, Mr. Marshall (Luis García Berlanga, 1953)

It's very hard to believe this film, made at the "secretly pro-communist UNINCI production company" according to Rob Stone, was able to be completed and released in the midst of a Spain tyrannically controlled by Franco. But there it was, its unspooling on 35mm in front of my eyes to kick off a Pacific Film Archive of films directed by Berlanga. Unfortunately I was unable to catch the rest of the series, but this political comedy mixing barbed satire of the political ties between Spain and the U.S., and of the fantasies exported by Hollywood, will stick in my memory for a long time. It was co-written by Juan Antonio Bardem, Berlanga's better-known contemporary who'd soon go on to direct Death of a Cyclist, but if that film evokes 1940s Hollywood noir this one puts it on a skewer and roasts it at a merry campfire, which may be why Edward G. Robinson (in a rare moment of narrow-mindedness) denounced Welcome, Mr. Marshall after it screened the 1953 Cannes Film Festival. Again, my tweet reaction. Try this analogy on for size: Death of a Cyclist : Detour :: Welcome, Mr. Marshall : Hail the Conquering Hero.

Some Came Running (Vincente Minnelli, 1958)

Of all the filmmakers that Andrew Sarris placed in "the Far Side of Paradise", Minnelli must be the one who appears most out of place in this position just shy of his Pantheon. The American Cinema's author accused the director of believing "more in beauty than in art" and though this is not the timeor place for semantic discussions, I can't help but think this assessment wouldn't have been made at any other time than the late 1960s, when Minnelli was still working but more than five years on from making Two Weeks In Another Town and a decade past the sublime 1958 Some Came Running
. I can't believe it's taken me as long as it has to catch up with this extraordinarily rich, vibrant, fundamentally sad film, but the wait has definitely been worth it! Thank you, 
Stanford Theatre, for giving me an opportunity to see this (as well as another Dean Martin masterpiece Artists & Models and more) in your wonderful spotlight on 1950s Hollywood this past Spring. Some Came Running is, of all these selections, the film I'd most want to revisit again tonight, to relive its joys and tears, its colors and movements, and its beautiful performances from Frank Sinatra and Shirley Maclaine especially.

The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille, 1956)

I grew up in a household of Unitarian-Universalists, which meant we made a ritual of avoiding most of the religious traditions observed in many other homes, like watching Biblical epics on television or otherwise. So I'd never seen this most famous of Old Testament interpretations before becoming interested in cinema history during my 20s. At some point early in that process I heard a voice saying "Thou shalt not watch Cecil B. DeMille's most ambitious cinematic undertaking for the first time on anything less than a 35mm print on a big cinema screen." I'm glad I listened, as making the trip to Palo Alto to see all umpteen reels of widescreen, Technicolor opulence from the fifth row of the Stanford Theatre was unforgettable. You don't have to believe in Moses's miracles as history to have faith in their cinematic splendor.

Objective, Burma! (Raoul Walsh, 1945)

I was able to attend nearly every screening in the small Raoul Walsh retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive last summer, vastly expanding my experience with this prolific and quintessential classic Hollywood director. There wasn't a dud among the selections of films culled from just about every genre and period of Walsh's career, but my favorite was this exemplary picture made and released in the waning months of World War II. The narrative structure subverts expectations of the typical war picture (especially one made during wartime) in several ways, notably through the character arcs of its key protagonists (Errol Flynn as the platoon captain, Henry Hull as the embedded reporter) and through the darkening tone of a film depicting a mission that at first appears to be a cakewalk. The film excels on practically every aesthetic level, most especially through James Wong Howe's tremendous, newsreel-come-to-life cinematography. My retinas still carry the afterimage of the white-hot explosions crackling off the screen in the climactic battle sequence. (Pictured at the top of this post).

Spacy (Takashi Ito, 1981)

2013 was a good year for catching up with older works by important experimental filmmakers at various venues, from Peter Hutton and Phil Solomon at the PFA (and the latter also at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts) to Scott Stark at the SF Art Institute, from Barbara Hammer at SFMOMA before it closed to Standish Lawder and Robert Nelson at the new Exploratorium after it opened. Three screenings of 16mm prints from Canyon Cinema at the Kadist pop-up gallery were also tremendous (and free!) opportunities to fill in canonical gaps; I took in the first and second and wish I could have made it to the third as well. But Oddball Films is an oft-overlooked home for experimental film showings, and a September program that merged ethnographic documentary with avant-garde work by Maya Deren, Pat O'Neill, etc. and featured the singlemost example of unexpected brilliance in a 16mm "short subject" I witnessed last year. I'd never heard of Spacy or its maker before, but this photographic animation feels like a headlong plunge into infinity, a peek into another universe in the shape of a single room that only filmmaker intervention could ever pull the viewer out of. Just amazing.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)

Another religious film I'd waited years to see on a big screen. As I tweeted at the time, it takes a completely different approach than a Cecil B. DeMille film in just about every way. Instead of elaborate studio artifice impressing the viewer into prostration, Pasolini has created out of the bounty of authentic-feeling locations, costumes and extras, and beautifully anachronistic music, a film that deeply probes our ideas about Jesus Christ and his place in the modern world. Pasolini's miracles rely not on matte paintings, miniatures and optical effects, but on the simple elegance of the edit. In his hands the mundane becomes the sublime, as if to ask whether each moment, cinematic or lived, is as holy and wondrous as a leper's cure. I caught up with or revisited quite a few of the Italian master's works in the early fall (and simultaneously read Pasolini Requiem), but this Pacific Film Archive 35mm showing was 

Mikey and Nicky (Elaine May, 1976)

I'm rather skeptical of cinema history narratives that privilege the 1970s as American cinema's Golden Age, as a time in which auteurs had unparalleled freedom to make anything their ambitious hearts desired without interference from corporate masters who hadn't yet determined to try to recreate the blockbuster successes of Spielberg and Lucas every time they released a movie. Although there's surely some truth in this frame, it doesn't explain a decade in which true artists like Orson Welles and Samuel Fuller had a harder time than ever getting opportunities behind a camera, in which good roles for female actors were nearly drowned in a sea of masculine energy, and in which there were still plenty of very bad movies. It makes me particularly pleased when I can add another unseen 1970s film to my personal canon of favorites. Thanks to an autumnal Castro Theatre screening, Elaine May's thus-far penultimate directing effort is a well-worthy addition. A drawn-from-family-biography Philadelphia story of betrayal showcasing two of the era's most indelible actors (Peter Falk and John Cassavetes), and featuring one of the highest shooting ratios and one of the most devastasting endings of all time, Mikey and Nicky makes me see the merit in the viewpoints of those who especially cherish 1970s cinema.

In A Year of Thirteen Moons (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978) 

According to Fassbinder, every seven years is an emotion-churning "lunar year", and lunar years with 13 new moons are particularly catastrophic. 1978 indeed was, at least for Fassbinder, whose lover and frequently-cast actor Armin Meier killed himself on or around Fassbinder's 33rd birthday, perhaps to avoid an impending dumping by the volatile writer-director.  Fassbinder threw himself into making and releasing this extremely personal, nakedly emotional, and truly visionary film as if he knew he couldn't move forward as an artist without getting it out of his system (Berlin Alexanderplatz had been scheduled to begin filming during the time he was busy writing and preparing for shooting this, but would ultimately be held for another year). The result is a film with some of the strongest, strangest scenes ever shown in a cinema. I spent much of last year's latter months attending Frisco Bay's tri-venue Fassbinder series, and this final screening of an imported 35mm print, held at the Yerba Buena Center For the Arts in late December, was the culmination of a highly rewarding series. I don't know if it's a coincidence that 2013 was also, according to Fassbinder's numerology, a "lunar year", but it seems to me that even seven years is too long to wait for another sizable RWF retro (in fact the last one before 2013 was in 2003). Come to think of it, 2014 will have thirteen new moons...

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