Friday, November 28, 2014

The Cranes Are Flying (1957)

Screen shot from Criterion DVD
WHO: Mikhail Kalatozov directed this.

WHAT: The Palme d'Or-winning film at the Cannes Film Festival in 1958, and the only film from the Soviet Union to ever have won that festival's top prize, unless you count the festival's unusual 2nd year (1946) when eleven films (including Fridrikh Ermler's The Turning Point) shared what was then called the "Grand Prize". The Cranes Are Flying is a technical tour-de-force, especially the bravura cinematography from Sergey Urusevsky, but it's also an emotional powerhouse, its story of young lovers separated by World War II given great resonance through the performances of Aleksey Batalov (who later starred in Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears) and Tatiana Samoilova (who later played Aleksandr Zarkhi's Anna Karenina, and who passed away earlier this year) as the couple asunder.  

WHERE/WHEN: 5:30 today only at the Pacific Film Archive

WHY: Mikhail Kalatozov is one of my favorite filmmakers that I know almost nothing about. I've only seen four of his films, each of them masterpieces, and I know very little of his biography other than that he was born in Tbilisi, Georgia and got his start making silent films in that then-Soviet republic (such as Salt For Svanetia). His follow-up The Nail in the Boot got him in trouble with Moscow authorities, and his career was severely hindered for the next nineteen years (in which he made only three films) but that he made a resurgence in the 1950s, and that The Cranes Are Flying and its follow-up The Letter Never Sent (which I've never seen although it is available on a Criterion DVD) are considered quintessential films of the Khrushchev "thaw" era.  In 1964 he made the phenomenal I Am Cuba, which was denounced in both Cuba and the U.S.S.R. and unseen by the international general public until 1992 when it was presented by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola to agog audiences. By then Kalatozov had been dead nearly twenty years, his final film being a 1969 international co-production starring Sean Connery, Claudia Cardinale and Peter Finch called The Red Tent (another I have not seen).

The four Kalatozov films I'd seen before all screen in an 8-day period at the Pacific Film Archive this week as part of its extended focus on Georgian filmmaking. I unfortunately missed Salt For Svanetia and The Nail In The Boot last Saturday, triply unfortunate because the latter screened with a new-ish documentary on its director called Hurricane Kalatozov. This evening The Cranes Are Flying screens and tomorrow it's I Am Cuba. I was hoping The Letter Never Sent or others of his films might turn up in the next installment of this Georgian focus when it was announced online this week, but I'll have to wait to see if they turn up in the March-April conclusion to the series. Instead, the January and February installments of the series will spotlight the most famous living filmmaking son of Georgia, Otar Iosseliani, one of its most prominent female directors Lana Gogoberidze (who will be at the PFA in person with her films), and a few other odds and ends including reprises of films that particularly impressed PFA-diehards this fall, The White Caravan and Repentance.

The PFA's January-February 2015 schedule also includes the next (last?) installment of the archive's extensive Jean-Luc Godard series, featuring films from the 1990s up until 2010's Film Socialisme. I confirmed with curator Kathy Geritz that the PFA, like most local not-for-profit venues, does not have the technical capability to show Godard's 2 most recent films, which utilize (and indeed push the boundaries of) modern 3D technology. So unless someone brings it to the Castro, the Kabuki, or a link in the Landmark or Camera chains (all of which seem less-than-probable to me), Frisco Bay Godard fans will have to hope they can make it to one of the Rafael Film Center's dwindling screenings if they want to see his latest game-changer Goodbye To Language. Meanwhile there are still five more 35mm prints of Godard films (and a digitally-presented short film called Origins of the 21st Century) to play at the PFA in 2014, including Keep Your Right Up tonight after Cranes Are Flying and Hail Mary tomorrow after I Am Cuba.

Other PFA programs coming in the first months of 2015 include a Billy Wilder series featuring rare 35mm prints of Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend and four of his lesser-seen films, as well as digital presentations of a half-dozen of his most famous directorial efforts plus Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka, which he wrote the screenplay for. The African Film Festival returns with a special focus on female filmmakers, including two programs devoted to rarities by Sarah Moldoror, the pioneering classmate of Ousmane Sembène who also worked on The Battle of Algiers before starting her own career as a director. In a separate but related mini-series Mati Diop, the niece of another Senegalese master director Djibril Diop Mambéty, will be on hand to present screenings of Claire Denis's 35 Shots of Rum, which she gave an indelible acting performance in, as well as several of the films she's recently directed. Eric Baudelaire will appear in person to discuss and screen his films.

The first part of the Spring semester's Documentary Voices program will include films by Robert Flaherty, Frederick Wiseman, and the late Harun Farocki. As usual in odd-numbered years, the PFA will host screenings as part of the third International Berkeley Conference on Film and Media, this time collecting silent film scholars to discuss the serial form in silent cinema and as it has captured our attention in the modern era. I can't wait for the screenings of Hollis Frampton's entire Hapax Legomena cycle and of Hazards Of Helen helmer J. P. McGowan's last silent serial The Chinatown Mystery, starring and co-written by John Ford's brother Francis. Finally, Emily Carpenter's Film 50 class, which as usual has a few spaces available to members of the public, involves enough intriguing and rare 35mm screenings that any cinephile with Wednesday afternoons free will want to secure their spots as soon as tickets become available next month.

HOW:  The Cranes Are Flying screens from a 35mm print.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Broncho Billy's Wild Ride (1914)

Publicity photograph provided by Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum
WHO: Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson directed and starred in this.

WHAT: A short film featuring Anderson, Marguerite Clayton, True Boardman and a number of local schoolchildren from Niles, California where Anderson's studio was located. David Kiehn's page-turner of a history book, Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company, indicates that part of the story took as inspiration a real-life injury that would haunt Anderson well into his retirement. That book's short synopsis of the plot is as follows: "Billy, an outlaw on trial, escapes from court, but is caught after he saves the judge's daughter on a runaway horse."

WHERE/WHEN: Tonight only at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, at 7:30PM.

WHY: I wrote about Niles in a PressPlay/Indiewire article a few years ago, that has for some reason unknown to me be taken down:
Niles nestles against the hills of Fremont, California, 30 miles east of San Francisco and 350 miles north of Los Angeles. Filled with antique shops and humble residences, it’s a town steeped in motion picture history. The first cowboy movie star, G.A. “Bronco Billy” Anderson, and Charlie Chaplin were among those who encamped there to shoot pictures in the mid-1910s, before Hollywood became THE go-to site in California for filmmaking, 
Now, nearly a hundred years later, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum keeps the past alive with weekly Saturday evening screenings of silent movies backed by live musical accompaniments. It’s one of the few public venues where one can regularly see 16mm and 35mm prints of all kinds of American and occasionally European silents.
Tonight's Niles screening is the 500th Saturday night silent film show scheduled at the Museum's Edison Theatre since it was refurbished and reopened in 2005. 51 Saturdays per year (the only annual week off is the San Francisco Silent Film Festival weekend), film prints show on a very regular basis. Upcoming 16mm feature-film shows include The Lost World November 29th, and in December, parts 1 & 2 of Fritz Lang's epic Spiders (it's apparently the season for Lang's silent epics as the Castro shows Metropolis tonight digitally and the Berkeley Underground Film Society brings Die Nibelungen in two parts tonight and tomorrow), and finally for 2014, the delightful Colleen Moore film I dragged my family to the last time a Niles Saturday show fell on Christmas, Ella Cinders.

But one-reel and two-reel films that were the specialty of a studio like the one in Niles a hundred years ago, and programs made up of these are particularly popular today. Every month the museum programs at least one Saturday of silent comedy (November 22 is Chaplin in The Rink, Buster Keaton in The Boat, the Thanksgiving classic Pass the Gravy and Laurel & Hardy in Leave 'Em Laughing, while December brings Chaplin's Easy Street, Keaton's The High Sign and a pair of Christmas-themed shorts Their Ain't No Santa Claus and the anarchic masterpiece Big Business.) Tonight's program is an extra-special shorts program made up entirely of films shot in Niles, most around 100 years ago, including, in addition to Broncho Billy's Wild Ride, Arthur Mackley's The Prospector, the Snakeville Comedy Versus Sledge Hammers, and the first Chaplin film made entirely in the town back in 1915, The Champion.

The exception to the 100-years-ago rule is Broncho Billy and the Bandit's Secret, a brand-new silent Western shot in Niles with a genuine Bell & Howell 2709 hand-cranked camera (formerly used by John Korty) and starring Christopher Green, Bruce Cates, former silent-era child star Diana Serra Cary, and a slew of Western-garbed re-enactors. This film has screened in workprints and other preliminary versions before, but tonight is the official premiere of the finalized version at the Edison!

Tomorrow the Edison will host a screening of a independently-produced talking picture made in Niles in 2007. From the museum's press release:  
Weekend King is a romantic comedy filmed in Niles about a California dot-commer who buys a bankrupt town in rural Utah. Rupert is rich, but awkward, friendless, and loveless. In a quest to overcome his loneliness, Rupert expects to lord over the New Spring Utah populace, but ends up contending with people who don't buy into his newly invented confidence. But grappling with his bad investment turns out to be the key for finally finding friendship and love. See local characters in cameos in the local haunts including Joe's Corner, the Vine Cafe, the Mudpuddle Shop, and Belvoir Springs Hotel.
Before both days' screenings, there will be a free Walking Tour of Niles. This 75-minute tour will take you around downtown Niles and its neighborhoods, telling you tales of times gone by including film locations for the films being shown during the movie weekend. Nationally-recognized film historian David Kiehn, who is the film museum's resident expert on the Essanay film company, also knows his stuff about local buildings and historic sites. His walking tours always attract a crowd. This event is free but donations are gladly accepted.
HOW: All of tonight's films screen in 35mm prints with live music by Frederick Hodges.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

City of Sadness (1989)

Screen shot of City of Sadness clip from Music Box Films DVD of The Story of Film
WHO: Hou Hsiao-Hsien directed this.

WHAT: Almost certainly the most widely-acclaimed of Hou's seventeen feature films. As I wrote on this blog after my first viewing of City of Sadness back in 2009:
Every shot in the film is impeccably framed and lit, each scene impeccably staged, often in a way that stresses the relationship between the weight of history and the ordinary life of citizens living it. For example. As a group of students or intellectuals sit and debate politics, Wen-ching and pretty, young Hinomi (played by Xin Shufen) sit to the side of the room, exchanging notes with each other while a folk song plays on the phonograph. Hou situates his camera in the space between the table of students and the clearly smitten couple. It could be a point-of-view shot from the position of one of the debaters, but that seems unlikely. The students are swept up in their discussion and do not seem to be paying attention to the room's other occupants and their activities. No, this shot isolates the spirited discussion from the would-be lovers' attempts to lead a normal life unhindered by the intrusions of politics. At least for this moment, the two are able to exist in their own world; this sense is accentuated as the sound of the conversation subtly drops out and all we hear are sonorous musical notes as they are released from the record grooves. 
WHERE/WHEN: Screens today only at the Pacific Film Archive at 7:00 PM.

WHY: As excited as I was that the PFA had programmed a full Hou Hsiao-Hsien retrospective this Fall, I must admit I've attended far less frequently than I'd hoped. I forget that Fall is always by far the busiest time of the year for me when it comes to non-movie-related responsibilities, and that even screenings I wish with the whole fiber of my being I could attend, often slip through my fingers. I fear I may have missed my last-ever chance to see 35mm prints of highly-acclaimed films like A Summer At Grandpa's or A Time To Live and A Time To Die but I'm glad to at least have been able to view three exceedingly rare items in Hou's early filmography. His second film Cheerful Wind, made in his "pop cinema" period, was no masterpiece but had a fascinating reflexive quality as it followed a commercial film crew on location in a small Taiwanese village. The Boys From Fengkuei, his fourth feature, was a brilliant statement of autobiography and independence that launched Hou's long phase of working almost exclusively with non-professional actors, and feels like a thematic template for another Taiwan auteur's debut, Tsai Ming-Liang's Rebels of a Neon God. And Dust in the Wind, Hou's seventh feature, lives up to its reputation as one of Hou's most formally controlled and emotionally heartbreaking works.

Kathy Gertitz, the curator who organized the PFA's participation in this touring series, has been emphasizing in her introductions for these screenings the difficulty of including Hou's ninth and tenth feature films, City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster, in the retrospective due to rights issues that have kept them out of American cinemas in recent years (although the PFA did show City of Sadness, at least, in 2010, I'm almost certain The Puppetmaster has not been seen in a Frisco Bay cinema since 2000). To screen these particular films, the PFA would have to keep the showings entirely non-commercial and educational in nature, which means the tickets are all free, and Friday's The Puppetmaster showing will include an introduction and book-signing by Richard Suchenski, a Hou expert who has recently edited a lovely volume of essays on the director.  Initially the plan was to only offer tickets to tonight and tomorrow's showings to Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive members who signed up in advance, but in the past weeks the PFA has decided to offer remaining tickets on a first-come, first-served basis to anyone who arrives at the door starting at 6PM each evening. So head on over to Berkeley and experience a pair of 35mm screenings that, unless some legal wrangling is able to be managed in the near future, are very unlikely to repeat themselves anytime soon.

HOW: The entire PFA Hou Hsiao-Hsien series screens via 35mm prints from here on out.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Movie (1958)

Screen shot from digital transfer of Facets VHS release.
WHO: Bruce Conner made this.

WHAT: Conner didn't bother with warning shots. His first film was a torpedo fired directly at moving image culture as it was in the late 1950s, and honestly as it still is today. Though it wasn't the first film to have been constructed completely out of pre-existing film material (Joseph Cornell's Rose Hobart beat it by 32 years, and Soviet filmmakers like Dziga Vertov and Esfir Shub had preceded Cornell) it was probably the first to do so with such exuberantly rapid editing and biting humor, in tribute to a memorable moment from the final reel of Leo McCarey's Duck Soup. Today Conner's aesthetic feels familiar and perhaps even stale on a single viewing, at least to those of us raised on music videos and popular compilations that "normalize" Conner's then-radical strategies. But multiple viewings reveal more about the film. Kevin Hatch has written:
With each encounter, the rhythm of the editing appears more natural and the shot selection less arbitrary, until the film's logic becomes intuitively evident. With each viewing of the film, we become accustomed to the abrupt breaks between shots and more comfortable allowing them to reveal unexpected formal relationships and trigger involuntary mnemonic associations. What at first appears chaotic comes to seem, with repeated viewing, compulsively ordered.
Hatch spends quite a bit of time going into more detail on A Movie in his book Looking For Bruce Conner, but one thing he neglects to mention are the dissolves that appear in the last few minutes of the film; previously all edits were of the simple cut-and-splice variety that reconcile with Conner's recollections of having used only the most rudimentary tools of "a little splicer and a rewind and a viewer" to make his earliest films. But in 1958 it was possible to instruct a film lab to insert a dissolve into a print when processing it, for a small fee, so it seems likely that Conner exploited this option to create images like the above crossfade from a smoldering volcano to a ecclesiastical coronation.

WHERE/WHEN: A Movie screens tonight at 7:00 at the Pacific Film Archive.

WHY: Though it's hard to find many bright spots in yesterday's election results, I did enjoy a reminder, through a glance at the facebook page of the proprietor of the Black Hole Cinematheque in Oakland, that Bruce Conner in 1967 ran a losing campaign for Supervisor that garnered more votes than some recent winners of Supervisor races have (though at the time elections were citywide rather than district-by-district, and therefore unfair to compare). As I wrote in a 2006 blog on Conner, his campaign speech was nothing more than a list of sweets.

I can think of no better cinematic post-election hangover cure than to see a Bruce Conner movie and a Craig Baldwin movie on the same bill. Baldwin's Tribulation 99 screens after A Movie tonight at the PFA, making a near-complete piecemeal retrospective of the living legend of San Francisco underground curation and filmmaking in the last few months, after terrific screenings of Mock Up On Mu, Sonic Outlaws and more at Artists' Television Access back in September. Tribulation 99 is probably Baldwin's most quintessential and essential film, and he'll be at the theatre to discuss it with anyone who dares to attend.

Tonight's program is part of the PFA's Alternative Visions series of experimental films, which winds down this month with shows devoted to Polish artist Pawel Wojtasik and to recent experimental films made by filmmakers who I'm guessing would probably acknowledge a debt to Conner in their own work. Many of them would likely acknowledge a debt to Baldwin as well, but probably none as vociferously as Linda Scobie, whose playful collage Craig's Cutting Room Floor is a 16mm film-assemblage of just what it describes: the material found beneath Baldwin's feet as he works in the editing room.

These may be the last three strictly experimental film programs at the PFA for a while, as recent tradition has held that the Alternative Visions series has been a Fall-only program with Spring devoted to cutting-edge documentary. With the PFA closing after July 2015, to re-open in a new, more BART-friendly, location in 2016, if the pattern holds it may be a couple years before we get a shot at seeing this kind of material in Berkeley again. Although there are some who would consider Jean-Luc Godard's films (especially his more recent ones) to be experimental films as well, and the PFA promises to continue with their retrospective of his work next Spring (presumably to culminate in his newest Goodbye To Language 3D, which in the meantime premieres locally next week in San Rafael). The current installment of this Godard retro covers his 1982-1994 work, and starts with his masterpiece Passion this Saturday. I'm pleased that a greater proportion of this segment of the Godard series is screening via 35mm prints than did in the last segment focusing on the 1970s. In fact the lion's share of the PFA's November-December calendar is 35mm, including everything in the Hou Hsiao-Hsien series, nearly everything in the Georgian film series that will also continue into 2015, and more than you might expect in the political documentary series entitled I’m Weiwei: Activism, Free Expression, Human Rights.

Of course the PFA is not the only place to show experimental films in the Bay Area; far from it in fact, when there's an organization like SF Cinematheque entering into a particularly busy month including tomorrow's Castro Theatre(!) screening of Andy Warhol's dual-projection epic Chelsea Girls and Friday's YBCA showing of Warhol's Hedy, both with fascinating and eloquent Factory star Mary Woronov in person, its annual art (and film) auction and benefit November 15th, and much more.

HOW: A Movie and Tribulation 99 both screen from 16mm prints in the PFA's own collection.