Sunday, December 20, 2015

Brazil (1985)

Screen capture from Criterion DVD
WHO: Terry Gilliam directed and co-wrote this.

WHAT: This may be Gilliam's most deeply black comedy, set in a near-future dystopian society that places great importance on bureaucracy, security, consumerism, and ceiling ducts. Jonathan Pryce plays a middle-aged everyman who dreams of escaping his life as an office drone to become a winged knight, to get a taste of life in the tropics as might be described in a dated samba song (from which this film derives its meridional title), or at least to get to better know the truck-driving young woman that he keeps fleetingly encountering. As he juggles his job duties, his visits with his plastic-surgery-obsessed mother, and unorthodox visits from the underground repairmen resistance, he comes closer to learning the cruel truth about his position in this society.

WHERE/WHEN: Today only at the Castro Theatre, at 2:15 and 8:00 PM.

WHY: This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of this film's release in the United States. lthough it had screened all over the world starting as early as February in Europe, September in ustralia and October in the nation sharing its name, Even the 132-minute version that Gilliam was able to eventualy convince Universal to release just before Christmas 1985 was missing 10 minutes of footage now expected to be included in the print showing at the Castro today (according to the theatre's claim of a 142-minute runtime).  This is considered to be the definitive version by most modern fans, and it includes a few more overt references to the Christmas season, during which many viewers tend to forget the film is set.

There are still plenty of other Xmas-themed movies screening in Frisco Bay cinemas over the next several days. For the traditional-minded, the Stanford shows its usual December Lubitsch film The Shop round the Corner this week from Monday to Wednesday (on a double bill with The Wizard of Oz) before screening its annual 35mm Christmas Eve It's a Wonderful Life show. It's sold out of course, but the Castro screens the same film digitally on Tuesday, December 22nd.

The Roxie, meanwhile, has a MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS-presented double bill of Christmas-themed eighties movies, Die Hard and Gremlins, that provide a different sort of Yuletide experience than a Lubitsch or Capra classic, but that are increasingly well-remembered as Christmastime films by new generations of movie lovers. These are both to be screened as DCP (Digital Cinema Package) files on the Roxie's far -improved digital projection system installed this past pril.

I finally had an opportunity to see the Roxie's digital system in action this past Friday when I went to see another 30th-anniversary screening, a presentation of The Last Dragon, introduced by comedian W. Kamau Bell and with its Tae Kwon Do expert star Taimak on hand for a very lively audience q&a. Though I was initially very disappointed that the screening was not presented in 35mm as originally advertised (mainly because it meant I was missing a 35mm print of The Straight Story across town at the Castro), I do see a silver lining in that I got to see for myself that the Roxie's main house can project digitally as well as anywhere (something that recent years' experience had left me in serious doubt of), in addition to the fact that I got to see a film I'd never seen before in a packed house of devoted fans more racially diverse than I can recall seeing a movie anywhere. I sat with a couple of friends who told me they'd experienced 35mm projection problems at the Roxie the Friday before, and although I'd just seen a truly flawless presentation of Brothers Quay shorts on Sunday December 3th, I pieced together from their comments and those of a Roxie staffer I spoke to briefly before leaving the screening after the q&a, that there'd been a recent pattern of 35mm projection problems at the cinema that had led them to decide to screen The Last Dragon digitally.

The next day I mentioned the issues on my twitter feed, and within a few hours received a very thorough e-mail from the Roxie's new Executive Director Dave Cowan, detailing the three separate problems the venue recently had projecting 35mm prints, and how they were resolved. He explained that the decision to project The Last Dragon digitally was made because of "issues with the mechanisms that align and advance the positive and negative carbons in our old Peerless Magnarcs." I've never operated a 35mm projector myself, much less a vintage carbon arc projector, but I believe the problem they were trying to avoid is one I've seen occur several times at the Roxie (though never at the Stanford, which also projects carbon arc, but which is run by a wealthy cine-philanthropist who can easily afford to keep all gear in top condition at all times.) Perhaps you have too: a film's image suddenly fades to dark as the soundtrack continues to play, until a few seconds (which can feel like minutes) later, the image is restored as bright as before the problem. Not as disruptive as a frame melt (which I've experienced this year at the Castro and YBCA, once apiece) or certain digital glitches, but something that certainly would have put a damper on an otherwise positive screening.

I'm glad to hear from Cowen that the Roxie believes it has now solved this carbon alignment issue, and will test further in the following days before its next scheduled 35mm screenings of Casablanca (a film that plays a key part in a humorous scene in Brazil) on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, and of Strange Days on December 30th. Unfortunately I won't be able to attend any of these showings myself, but I encourage readers who do to report back either via comment or by emailing me.

HOW: On a 35mm subversively Christmas-themed double-bill with Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

20th Century Fox DVD screen capture
WHO: William Fox produced this film and F.W. Murnau directed it.

WHAT: One of those rarities of cinema: a technical marvel with a living, beating heart. As I wrote in my 2009 essay on this film when it screened at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's Valentine's Day event:
Charles Rosher, one of the top cinematographers in Hollywood, had spent time with Murnau in Berlin serving as an unofficial consultant on Faust, the director’s most effects-laden film to date. Rosher worked alongside Murnau as a student as much as an advisor, learning about the innovative German camera methods that amazed American critics and filmmakers. 
Rosher recruited Ben-Hur cinematographer Karl Struss to help him shoot Sunrise on Rochus Gliese’s elaborate sets. Gliese built a vast indoor city set designed to appear even larger through the use of forced perspective. It cost $200,000—nearly the entire budget of a typical program picture of the day. He also created a studio-bound marsh with an uneven floor that could not accommodate a dolly setup. Instead, tracks were attached to the ceiling and Struss filmed upside-down, a maneuver Rosher had observed on the Faust set. It was only one of many radical techniques used in Sunrise. Nearly every shot in the film involves a striking effect, whether from an unusual light source, a superimposition, or a complex camera movement. Yet each is motivated by allegiance to the story and its emotions. Murnau told an interviewer, “I do not take trick scenes from unusual positions just to get startling effects. To me the camera represents the eye of a person, through whose mind one is watching the events on screen.”
WHERE/WHEN: Today only at the Stanford Theatre at 3:50 PM.

WHY: The Stanford is halfway through its most appealing and ambitious program in at least the past 18 months: a tribute to the twenty year reign of the Fox Film Corporation, which began releasing films in 1915 and ceased in 1935, when it merged with the lesser-known upstart Twentieth Century Pictures. So far the series has brought little-screened films featuring stars such as Clara Bow, Will Rogers, Spencer Tracy, and Janet Gaynor, the luminous star of Sunrise who rose from her roots in San Francisco (where she went to Polytechnic High School and was employed by the Castro Theatre) to become the first Best Actress Oscar winner for this film as well as Seventh Heaven and Street Angel. All three of these masterpieces will be screened at the Stanford in 35mm prints as part of its Silent Sunday series, and I can hardly imagine a better introduction to most of these films if you've never seen them before, or to the Stanford if you've never traveled to Palo Alto to visit it before. Gaynor also features in The Johnstown Flood, the rarest of the Stanford's Silent Sunday offerings (on a double bill with Seventh Heaven December 6th) and Lucky Star, which screens with Murnau's lovely final film made in the United States, City Girl, to close the Fox Film Corporation series December 20th as the Stanford moves into its traditional Christmastime screenings: The Shop Around the Corner, It's A Wonderful Life, etc.

Dennis James, Wurlitzer organist extraordinaire, has been performing live music to all the Stanford's Silent Sundays screenings thus far, and will continue to do so for the final three Sundays of the series. Today he gets a week off, as the Stanford has elected to screen Sunrise not with live music but with the pioneering sound-on-film Movietone score that was prepared for the film's original 1927 release in the United States. This score is beloved by many fans of Sunrise but I find it merely adequate and more interesting as a historical curiosity than as an artistic statement. I'm swayed by Janet Bergstrom's research that indicates it was quite possibly not, as is frequently assumed today, prepared by famous composer Hugo Riesenfeld, who definitely composed the musical score for Murnau's swan song Tabu: a Story of the South Seas. To me, it sounds like a mostly-pedestrian compilation score whose tendency to be overwhelmed by non-musical sound effects destroys some of Murnau's poetic treatment of soundless sound in the film (such as in the scene of George O'Brien reacting to an off-screen dog bark, as pictured above). I always found it interesting that Dennis James has so frequently spoken of his insistence on performing originally-composed scores to silent films for which scholars have found them, but often ignores his own rules when it comes to Movietone or Vitaphone soundtracks, having played his own scores to Sunrise and to West of Zanzibar when at the SF Silent Film Festival in 2009. In the case of Sunrise, perhaps he feels (and if so, I agree) that the Movietone score that premiered in New York is less sacrosanct than the live score performed in Los Angeles would be were it not lost to the sands of time.

In fact more notable on today's Silent Sunday docket is the presentation of the almost universally beloved Movietone score to John Ford's heartbreaking, Sunrise-esque World War I picture Four Sons, which was to the disappointment of many excluded from the 2007 DVD release of the film. Rarely screened in any form, Four Sons will be for many attendees today the real gem of the program; I've only seen it once myself and never in a cinema, but still I can imagine myself being among them despite my deep, abiding love for Sunrise.

Other upcoming Stanford screenings of particular note include the wonderful Me & My Gal this Wednesday and Thursday, my favorite Janet Gaynor talkie (heck, one of my all-time favorite films as well) State Fair on December 18-19, and most unusually a December 4-5 triple bill of the rumored-excellent Zoo in Budapest along with Seventh Heaven/Street Angel/Lucky Star director Frank Borzage's bizarre 1930 version of Ferenc Molnár's play Liliom as well as Fritz Lang's 1934 version (which I have yet to see). The last of these is a real surprise to see on a Stanford calendar, as it's not a Fox film at all but Lang's sole film made in France on his way out of Germany and into Hollywood. In my fifteen years or so of following the Stanford calendars I'm positive this is the first time I've seen a French film booked for a theatre that in my experience focuses exclusively on classic Hollywood and British productions with the two notable auteurist exceptions of Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray. Given that I have to stretch to imagine any other currently-operating Frisco Bay cinemas willing to book a 1934 French film in 35mm, I welcome this development wholeheartedly.

Luckily, although the Liliom/Zoo in Budapest/Liliom bill screens on the same day as the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's December 5th "Day of Silents", it also screens the day before, so it won't be necessary to miss a rare 35mm screening of the Anna May Wong vehicle Piccadilly, or the other offerings at the Castro Theatre that day. I'm excited to revisit Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate, this time with Alloy Orchestra accompaniment and introduced by Tracey Goessel, whose new Fairbanks biography The First King of Hollywood I'm in the midst of devouring. Also to see rare documentary footage of China and a Harry Houdini feature The Grim Game. And if you've never seen Marcel L'Herbier's L'inhumaine on a cinema screen it's worth it for the set design alone. Alloy Orchestra takes on musical duties for that one as well; the rest go to the terrific pianist Donald Sosin.

The Day of Silents is just the first cinephile-catnip program on a December full of goodies at the Castro Theatre. Werner Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre with Michael Mann's The Keep, Noir City Xmas pairing The Reckless Moment and Kiss of Death, December 17th Stop Making Sense and Laurie Anderson's Home of the Brave and a twisted Christmas booking of Brazil and Eyes Wide Shut are some of the more enticing all-35mm double-bills there this month. The venue also hosts the annual Lost Landscapes of San Francisco show December 9th and will ring in January with a set of Alfred Hitchcock masterpieces. But even more than all of those, I'm finding myself most excited for a digital presentation of a San Francisco cult classic that deserves to be far better known than it is. I'm speaking of course of Curt McDowell's Thundercrack!, starring (and scripted and lit by) the great underground film icon George Kuchar. It screens twice with director McDowell's sister Melinda and his frequent collaborator Mark Ellinger on hand at (I'm told) both shows, but only the evening show will be hosted by the one and only Peaches Christ. Even if you have no awareness of Thundercrack!, the most entertaining "Old Dark House"-style quasi-pornographic art film ever to get Fox News in a tizzy, this is a rare opportunity to see a Peaches Christ show for less than $20. Mark December 11th on your calendar- in ink!

There's a lot more happening in December at other Frisco Bay venues, but for now I'd better sign off. But in case I don't have time to put up another post before this Tuesday, December 1st, I want to point out that, with the help of other Artists' Television Access volunteers, I'll be helping to present a free 16mm screening of Curtis Choy's untoppably topical 1983 documentary The Fall of the I-Hotel at the Noe Valley Public Library, and I hope you can make it out that evening.

HOW: Sunrise screens on a 35mm double-bill with Four Sons.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Assassin (2015)

Screen capture from trailer.
WHO: The legendary Hou Hsiao-Hsien directed and co-produced this film from a screenplay he co-wrote with Xie Hai Meng, Zhong Acheng and his longtime collaborator Chu Tien-Wen.

WHAT: Although I was able to view Hou's first feature since 2007's Flight of the Red Balloon at a Mill Valley Film Festival-sponsored press screening, I'm not supposed to provide more than a brief "capsule" review until its commercial run a week and a half from now. Just as well, as I'd need at least one more viewing to feel comfortable talking about it in any depth. For now I'll just call it a visually sumptuous, anti-kung fu film that verges closer to "avant-garde" than anything else Hou has done. Ninety-nine percent of the film is presented in a square-ish Academy aspect ratio, which along with its black-and-white opening makes The Assassin seem more like a 1950s Akira Kurosawa film than like the wuxia pian made by King Hu and others (always in widescreen) in the 1960s and beyond. Though honestly Mizoguchi, especially a late color film like Princess Yang Kwei Fei, feels like a more relevant referent (and one I'm not surprised to see Danny Kasman had perceived long before I did). Hou has worked with square ratios before, but (I'm pretty certain) only in his framings-within-framings in widescreen films like City of Sadness and Good Men, Good Women. It's as if he's reclaiming 4:3 Academy as a more truly "cinematic" shape in this era of wide televisions and phones.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens tonight at the Embarcadero Cinema at 6:30 and 9:15, and 8:30 on October 17th at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. All these showings are "at RUSH", meaning advance tickets are sold out and would-be buyers must form a line in hopes of obtaining seats as they're made available. The Assassin opens a regular theatrical run at the Metreon, the Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley, and Camera 3 in San Jose starting October 23rd.

WHY: Although tonight's screenings will take some persistence to get into for those who haven't already secured tickets, it's fair to say they'll be worth it, as Hou Hsiao-Hsien himself is expected to attend at least the first one, a rare occurrence here in San Francisco indeed. An auteur of his stature visiting this city is cause for real celebration, and the SF Film Society has complied by making Hou a main focus of its entire Taiwan Film Days mini-festival tonight and tomorrow. In addition to the two showings of The Assassin there's a revival showing of what many consider Hou's first great film, The Boys From Fengkuei, and although Hou is not (as far as I understand) expected to attend this showing, he does make a cameo appearance in a very early-eighties perm. There are still advance tickets available for this screening as well as for the Flowers of Taipei: Taiwan New Cinema, a recent documentary about the 1980s and 1990s heyday of Taiwan's cinematic production history, focusing attention on famous names like Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-Liang and Hou (whose Flowers of Shanghai obviously inspired the doc's title) but also on lesser-knowns like Wang Tung, who employed a pre-Rebels of the Neon God Tsai as a screenwriter on multiple films. Director Chinlin Hsieh will be on hand for tomorrow night's showing.

Although the Mill Valley Film Festival The Assassin screening on the 17th is also at "Rush" (as was its Frisco Bay public premiere via the festival this past Thursday), there is still a lot of this festival to go that has plenty of tickets available. There are still seats for tonight's second screening of the Hungarian prize-winner Son of Saul, for instance. I'll be attending this as consolation for missing Hou in person, thankful that the film's distributor insisted it be screened in 35mm. It's the only new film in the festival (and so far, to my knowledge, any 2015 Frisco Bay feature-oriented film festival) to screen in this format, but MVFF has also booked a couple of retrospective titles showing on actual film reels: The Sorrow and the Pity October 16th with director Marcel Ophuls on hand, and on October 18th Autumn Sonata, Inmgar Bergman's final made-for-the-cinema film and his only collaboration with Ingrid Bergman. A documentary about her, Ingrid Bergman - In Her Own Words also screens at the Rafael Film Center tonight, launching an eight-title series celebrating her centennial. I'm told than the program page for this series contains a typo and that the documentary will not screen in 35mm but that Autumn Sonata and Notorious definitely will (the latter is also newly booked to play the Paramount in Oakland in that format) . As will Confidential Report and F For Fake in the Rafael's upcoming Orson Welles centennial conclusion, and Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home on December 3rd. In fact, between the Mill Valley Film Festival (which is far more thoroughly explored at The Evening Class by Michael Hawley and by Michael Guillén) and the upcoming Rafael winter calendar, I feel safe to say the California Film Institute holds a commanding lead among local cinephile institutions stepping up their game in the absence of the Pacific Film Archive this Fall, at least from my perspective. No, the Stanford's current Rogers & Hammerstein festival is not going to cut it for me, and though the Castro and Roxie both have some interesting programs on their slates (I'm most excited by Ken Russell's The Devils October 20th, the Brothers Quay shorts in December and Audition Halloween week), neither venue is doing quite enough to prevent me from wishing it were as easy to get to San Rafael in public transportation as it was to get to Berkeley.

HOW: The Assassin screens as a Digital Cinema Package (DCP).

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Rufino Tamayo: the Sources of His Art (1973)

Image from brief youtube excerpt from the film.
WHO: Los Angeles filmmaker Gary Conklin directed this 28-minute documentary.

WHAT: I wrote this brief blurb on this film for the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) website:
An investigation of one of Mexico's most intriguing painters, known especially for his use of color (thankfully SFPL's print has retained all of its lovely hues.) Born in Oaxaca and proud of his Zapotec Indian heritage, Tamayo was one of the twentieth century's most prominent artists influenced both by pre-Columbian art and by European modernists such as Picasso. These inspirations, as well as the visual characteristics of Mexico itself, are presented in conjunction with interviews with Tamayo. In addition, Hollywood director John Huston (the Treasure of Sierra Madre, Night of the Iguana) speaks a narration written by Nobel laureate Octavio Paz; director Gary Conklin would later return the favor by documenting the filming of Huston's final Mexico-set feature, Under the Volcano. Conklin has also made film portraits of Gore Vidal, Paul Bowles, and Ed Ruscha.
WHERE/WHEN: Screens 6:30 PM tonight only at the SFPL Noe Valley branch's meeting room.

WHY: I sense that Frisco Bay is feeling a smaller presence of 35mm this September than in any month since the nineteenth century. With the PFA closed as it prepares its move down the hill into downtown Berkeley, with the Stanford shuttered until October for remodeling, and with the Alamo Drafthouse's New Mission location still without a publicly-announced grand opening date, it feels like a moment of uncertainty and waiting. Meanwhile Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is presenting a Neil Young screening series (to be followed by an Architecture & Design doc series) with only one 35mm print (his blown-up-from Super-8 Greendale), and the format is running a distant third (with 13 shows) even at the Castro behind digital shows (well over 20) and 70mm screenings (10 Labor Day weekend Vertigo shows plus 5 of Lawrence of Arabia this weekend = 15). The 4-Star Theatre, the last San Francisco cinema still regularly showing new releases in 35mm, has the digitally-shot Straight Outta Compton, and though the South Bay's BlueLight Cinema is showing 35mm prints of 50% of its current offerings (including four shot-on-video action films and one shot-on-35mm drama by a guy whose films I currently refuse to see), I imagine that percentage will drop in the near future, at least if its kickstarter to raise funds for better digital projectors is successful. Finally, the Paramount in Oakland will be showing a 35mm print of the original Mad Max on Friday, although I've been told to expect the American-dubbed version.

When I can rattle off a month's worth of 35mm showings in the region in a single paragraph, it's pretty clear I'm talking about a waning format, perhaps an "inevitable" transition as a panel at the newly-announced Mill Valley Film Festival seems set to prove. But even if 35mm were to die tomorrow, it wouldn't mean the end of projected reels as long as there were 16mm-centric venues like Oddball Films and the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum and the Exploratorium (which is showcasing a set of brand new 16mm preservations this Thursday) around and thriving. Artists' Television Access (A.T.A.) is another venue which values 16mm projection and which is busier than usual this September; Craig Baldwin traditionally involves 16mm in every one of his weekly Other Cinema programs, and my girlfriend Kerry Laitala will be presenting 3 different multi-projector performances this Friday at her show with Voicehandler at the Valencia Street venue. I highly recommend attending, especially if you missed one or both of their shows at Oddball and Shapeshifters Cinema this past July.

in 2015 I've become involved with a group of A.T.A. volunteers who are spending evenings going through the San Francisco Public Library's collection of 16mm prints, most of them untouched in 20 years or more. The library has a collection of hundreds of films intended for teenage and adult viewers, most of which appear to have been acquired for the collection in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. We're looking at some of the more intriguing-sounding films and putting screening programs together of the best (both in physical and aesthetic quality) prints we're coming across. Our first program screened this past June at the Noe Valley library, and showcased five diverse documentaries, most of them unavailable on any home video format or (as far as we've been able to find) the internet. Our second program, screening tonight, is a little more focused, bringing together two nearly-half-hour films about North American artists. Rufino Tamayo: the Sources of His Art, a color film about a painter, is paired with My Childhood, Part 2: James Baldwin's Harlem, a black-and-white film about a writer of poetry, plays, essays, etc. that was broadcast on television in 1964. In addition to helping to select the films, I wrote short blurbs about both, but as I reprinted the Rufino Tamayo one above, I'll make you follow a link to read what I wrote on My Childhood. I hope you can make it tonight's showing of the two films. Admission is free and there will be an opportunity for discussion afterward.

On strange coincidence I discovered after the pairing of these two films was made. As I noted above, Rufino Tamayo's director Gary Conklin later made an hour-long documentary about the filming of John Huston's final film shot in Mexico, Under the Volcano. The documentary is available through the Criterion Collection edition of the 1984 feature. Well, it turns out that one of the key filmmakers involved in making My Childhood, cinematographer Ross Lowell, also traveled to Mexico to document the making of a John Huston film, namely the 1964 Night of the Iguana. Lowell's 15-minute final product is available on the Warner DVD of the Huston film. Just to add another layer to the coincidence, it was well after we selected these two films to play together tonight that I learned the Castro Theatre would be screening a 35mm print of Huston's first Mexico-set feature (and my favorite of the three), Treasure of the Sierra Madre, on September 27th.

HOW: Rufino Tamayo: the Sources of His Art and My Childhood, Part 2: James Baldwin's Harlem will screen together in 16mm prints from the SF Public Library collection.

Friday, September 4, 2015

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Screen capture from New Line Entertainment DVD
WHO: Wes Craven, who died of brain cancer last weekend, wrote and directed this.

WHAT: In an age where we love our screens so much that we like to take them to bed with us, the above-pictured scene, starring Johnny Depp in his very first movie role, seems eerily prescient. Or maybe it's just fun. Either way it's a great moment to see in a theatre full of other moviegoers.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens at the Roxie tonight and tomorrow at 9:45 PM, on Sunday at 3:00 PM, and next Wednesday at 9:45 PM

WHY: The very first of the nine-and-counting "official" films featuring modern bogeyman character Freddy Krueger was never expected by its writer-director to launch a franchise, but it touched such a nerve in popular culture that it was inevitable to occur. I was a horror-averse preteen and, later, teenager when these movies came out so I never saw them at the time, but that doesn't mean I wasn't constantly exposed to Freddy through schoolmates descriptions of him, through Halloween costumes, through novelty songs, and the like.

I finally saw my first Freddy film (this one) in October 2007 when Jesse Hawthonre Ficks of MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS played it on a Castro Theatre triple-bill with Flowers in the Attic (which Craven was slated to direct but ultimately didn't, to the finished product's detriment) and the 1977 The Hills Have Eyes, which I instantly recognized as the best of the handful of Craven-directed films I'd seen thus far. Though to my regret I haven't added to that small list in the nearly eight years interim (aside from a DVD viewing of his underrated The Serpent and the Rainbow). Nor have I watched any of the many non-Craven-directed Freddy Krueger movies aside from A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge when it screened at the Frameline festival a couple years ago after a stage show featuring drag queen Peaches Christ wearing a red-and-olive green sweater lipsynching the Hell out of "Enter Sandman".

It's a shame that it's taking the horror icon's death for me to realize how desperately I need to familiarize myself with his legacy. In addition to this week's Roxie screenings, Ficks (who told me about the sad news in person when we ran into each other at Sunday's Castro screening of King Vidor's The Crowd- the venue's final silent film to be performed with the current Wurlitzer organ before it's replaced with a new one in the coming weeks) has booked 35mm prints of two 1990s Craven films for October 30th at the Castro: Scream (the first Craven film I ever saw) and New Nightmare, his return to the franchise he never intended to be one, that has always sounded fascinating to me, set as it is on the production of Freddy Krueger movie (how meta!) I'm not sure I'll make time to fill in the gaps and watch A Nighmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors through Freddy's Dead: the Final Nightmare on DVD before then, as it appears from this list of references that I've probably seen enough of the series already to follow along with the film nicely. I'd rather spend time watching some of the more highly-recommended Craven films like Swamp Thing and Shocker, assuming they're available from Le Video. Or watching other films on the new Castro calendar such as the other MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS auteur tribute, on October 2nd (John Carpenter's They Live and Assault on Precinct 13).

HOW: The Roxie will show A Nightmare on Elm Street via DCP, a format they became able to screen this past April but which I haven't experienced there for myself yet, having only seen 35mm and DVD-projections there in the meantime. I'm sure this digital format will look better than the latter, even if it can't quite maintain some of the essential qualities of the former. It seems DCP is only available in the "Big Roxie" and not the "Little Roxie" so take that under consideration in picking your showtime for The Tribe (a film I have much more to say about than to simply recommend or dismiss) should you decide to see it during its current run. I'm pleased that the venue was able to bring in DCP without giving up its ability to show 35mm, which it will from October 30 to November 3rd when it brings a set of Quay Brothers shorts along with a documentary by Christopher Nolan.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

Screen capture from Criterion DVD
WHO: Robert Montgomery directed and starred in this film, shortly after doing the same in the notorious experiment Lady In The Lake, which was filmed entirely from the perspective of the lead character. This follow-up was not.

WHAT: I haven't seen Ride the Pink Horse yet, but I can't wait to. I first came across the title perusing Academy Award nominee lists; Thomas Gomez was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in this film, by some measures the chronologically first on a short list of Hispanic nominees over the years. Then in 2011 Elliot Lavine showed it in his "I Wake Up Dreaming" series at the Roxie and Steve Seid screened it as part of his "American Noir in Mexico" Pacific Film Archive series, and though I missed both showings I heard from many that it was a standout noir. So I wasn't all that surprised when Criterion added it to its collection despite its non-canonical status. Perhaps it's part of a shifting canon, however. Dennis Harvey guesses that it "may be the best border-town noir predating Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil" in his essential 48hills article this week.

WHERE/WHEN: 7:30 PM tonight only at the Castro Theatre, as part of I Wake Up Dreaming 2015.

WHY: Harvey's article gives a much better explanation of Elliot Lavine's 5-Thursday noir series, and why it's at the Castro Theatre rather than Lavine's traditional curatorial home the Roxie, than I would be able to. Pam Grady has also written a generous preview. As someone whose cinephilia blossomed at the tail end of Lavine's original stint at the Roxie, and whose interest in noir was stoked more at the Castro than at that venue, I'm not the ideal person to talk about the full importance of his past programming glories. I take it on faith that a huge part of the current fashion for noir, especially in San Francisco, is thanks to his efforts. But testimonials to this fact can come from the most unlikely places. I happen to have just read Patton Oswalt's new(ish) book Silver Screen Fiend, which is an oddly ambivalent recounting of the famous comedian's four years of obsessive moviegoing in Los Angeles. Mostly. But he occasionally hints at the role that San Francisco screenings played in his cinemania, and rather comes out and says it (at the risk of diminishing his overall, LA-centric thesis) on page 10:
I became addicted to film noir during the three years I lived in San Francisco, when the Roxie Theater on Sixteenth Street would do its noir festival every spring. I saw H. Bruce Humberstone's brilliant I Wake Up Screaming in 1993. That scene where psycho policeman Laird Cregar stares, openmouthed and turtle-eyed, as the film of his now-dead, unattainable dream girl plays in the smoky interrogation room? The one he's using to torment slick, grinning Victor Mature, hoping to railroad the poor bastard into the electric chair? That got me. Wow, did that get me.
Of course Oswalt's describing a scene from the film that inspired the name of Lavine's current series, from a screening that Lavine undoubtedly programmed and perhaps introduced. His taste was a formative influence on the aesthetic sensibilities of a guy who now has well over 2 million twitter followers. I Wake Up Screaming isn't one of the twelve titles Lavine's offering up for his first gig at the Castro, but from what I've seen of and heard about the selections, I'm not going to want to miss very many of the showings. The first three Thursdays are entirely populated by films I've never seen before, though some of them (especially Ride the Pink Horse, So Dark the Night and the Frisco-set Chinatown at Midnight) have been on my must-watch lists for a long time. I've seen four of the five films playing the final two weeks of the series, and all at the Roxie as part of Lavine double-bills. My favorite of the four is definitely Jacques Tourneur's Nightfall, followed by Stanley Kubrick's Killer's Kiss, which just might be the first noir I ever saw at the Roxie. The one I haven't seen yet is Dementia, but I've been kicking myself for missing it when Lavine last programmed it over four years ago, and I'm thrilled to get another chance. 

HOW: All screenings in I Wake Up Dreaming 2015 are sourced from 35mm prints. Ride the Pink Horse plays on a double-bill with So Dark the Night.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Stalker (1979)

Screen capture from A Story of Film DVD, Music Box
WHO: Andrei Tarkovsky directed this, as well as contributing to the screenplay and production design. It was his last completed film to be made within the Soviet Union.

WHAT: Surely the most challenging film still impressively hanging on to a spot on the imdb's Top 250 list of films as ranked by users of the popular (and, for the most part, populist) movie website. It ranks 193 there, just behind The Best Years of Our Lives and ahead of Shutter Island, for what it's worth. The only other Tarkovsky film on the list is currently Solaris, barely clinging to the bottom at #250 for now. It's a film I waited years to see on the big screen, finally doing so in 2009 at SFMOMA. (It was worth the wait.) Since then at least one key collaborator on the film has died: Boris Strugatsky, who co-wrote the screenplay based on his and his brother Arkadiy's quite-different science-fiction novel Roadside Picnic. Stalker was rated among the top ten greatest by 39 critics and 14 film directors, placing it in the top 30 films on both the critics' and directors' 2012 Sight and Sound lists of all-time great films. And it is the subject of an unusual but very readable monograph by Geoff Dyer entitled Zona, also published in 2012. Though I'm not sure why Dyer feels it's important to diffuse accusations of being overly invested in The Art Film by describing how bored he was watching L'Avventura early in the book, he recovers and proceeds to provide intriguing anecdotes and insights. For instance, he talks about tracking down screenings of Stalker in whatever city he happened to be living in, reflecting on "the possibility of cinema as semipermanent pilgrimage site" in one of his footnotes that takes over the main body of the text:
That list of things and people I won't watch on TV does not stop at Top Gear and Jeremy Clarkson. It also includes....Stalker. One cannot watch Stalker on TV for the simple reason that the Zone is cinema; it does not even exist on telly. The prohibition extends beyond Stalker, to anything that has any cinematic value. It doesn't matter if the TV is HD: great cinema must be projected. It is the difference, as John Berger puts it, between watching the sky ('from where else would film stars come if not from a film sky?') and peering into a cupboard.
WHERE/WHEN: Screens tonight at the Pacific Film Archive at 7:30 PM.

WHY: There had been no 35mm presentations of Stalker in a Frisco Bay cinema between the 2009 SFMOMA screenings and this past Thursday, when it screened as part of the Pacific Film Archive's Tarkovsky retrospective. Perhaps this is why the screening sold out well in advance, and another screening (tonight's) added to the PFA's final week of showings at it current "temporary" (for the past 16+ years) space at 2575 Bancroft, before re-opening nearer to Shattuck Street early in 2016. For those of us who began frequenting the PFA after its move out of the Berkeley Art Museum basement in the late 1990s, this is a site of a great deal of nostalgia (to borrow another Tarkovsky title), and the place where we saw some of the greatest films we've ever seen, in some cases for the only time.

A sampling of distinguished guests who have graced this humble room might include Budd Boetticher, Donald Richie, Anthony Slide, Midori Sawato, Gus Van Sant, Sogo Ishii, Frederick Wiseman, Hedy Honigmann, Charles Burnett, Walter Murch, Michel Brault, Kim Longinotto, Clint Eastwood, Gunvor Nelson, Martin Reijtman, Kazuo Hara, Patricio Guzman, Phil Tippett, Mark Isham, Les Blank, Alex Cox, J. Hoberman, Kidlat Tahimik, Agnes Godard, Mati Diop, and Nino Kirtadze. Sadly I missed all of these events. But I did see Rob Nilsson, Guy Maddin, Paolo Cherchi Usai, Peter Kubelka, Kevin Brownlow, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Olivier Assayas, Lech Majewski, Terence Davies, Pedro Costa, Janet Bergstrom, Ernie Gehr, Lawrence Jordan, David Meltzer, Wilder Bentley II, Kelly Reichardt, Kerry Laitala (before I'd met her), Craig Baldwin, George and Mike Kuchar, Sam Pollard, Dave Kehr, Phil Solomon, Agnes Varda, Tony Buba, Sally Cruikshank, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Lana Gogoberidze, and J.P. Sniadecki talk about their (or in some cases, others') films, and had my perceptions of cinema changed in some small or large way by every single one of them. Not to mention stalwart pianist Judith Rosenberg and other musical accompanists that silent films have almost always been attended with over the years.

Though there is no guest expected at tonight's Stalker showing, the remainder of the week will feature daily appearances from Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice, who will be on hand to show each film in his small but powerful body of work since his 1973 masterpiece Spirit of the Beehive, showing Saturday, and perhaps if we're lucky, some of the films in the Erice Selects series concluding the PFA's final Bancroft screenings: Zero For Conduct (a free 35mm screening!), City Lights, Bicycle Thieves, The Kid, and my favorite of all of these, Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story. Just be aware that there is no BART service between San Francisco and the East Bay on August 1st and 2nd, and plan your transportation accordingly.

HOW: 35mm print

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The City Luminous: Spectral Canopy Variation (2015)

WHO: Award-winning filmmaker Kerry Laitala made this, and I actually assisted her on some of her studio shoots. I've mentioned Latiala on this blog every so often since before I'd ever met her, but in the past several years we've become close, as I've explained before. I don't want that to stop me from featuring her work here every so often. Hope my readers don't mind.

WHAT: A four-projector video installation celebrating the centennial of the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), particularly its innovative lighting presentations. But don't take my word for it. Here's what Joe Ferguson had to say on the website SciArt in America:
Kerry Laitala’s The City Luminous: Spectral Canopy Variation is a collage of documentary material of the PPIE, intercut with expressionistic video segments. It features Laura Ackley, author of San Francisco’s Jewel City, as one of the Star Maidens of the PPIE’s Court of the Universe--one of the largest and most ornate courts during the fair. The installation also features dancer Jenny Stulberg performing a tribute to Loie Fuller--a pioneer of modern dance and theatrical-lighting techniques. 
Laitala’s piece cleverly reminds us that the works of innovative minds can be as impressive and inspiring now as they were a century ago. Her own work, though on a smaller scale, is no less affecting. Viewers pause in front of the glowing windows where her installation is projected before beginning their commutes home. Like those spectators a hundred years ago, they brave the chill of a San Francisco evening to glimpse at the possibilities of emerging technologies providing insight, hope, and beauty.
WHERE/WHEN: Loops from sundown to midnight tonight and tomorrow through the windows of the California Historical Society, on the corner of Mission Street and Annie Alley (between 3rd Street and New Montgomery). It's planned to reprise from December 21 to January 3 as well, but who wants to wait that long? UPDATE 6/29/15: The installation will remain up for one last night, tonight!

WHY: This weekend is an extremely busy one here on Frisco Bay. It's a particularly celebratory pride weekend (and the final couple days of the Frameline film festival). Huge numbers of librarians (and more than a few film archivists) from around the world are converging on San Francisco for their annual conference. There's a big gathering of poets, musicians, and even a few filmmakers from the Beat era. (ruth weiss, known to Beat cinema aficionados for her 1961 film The Brink, will be performing and David Amram will give a presentation about Pull My Daisy, which he scored, amidst the more usual documentaries about the scene.) The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum is hosting its annual Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival (with the expected appearance of a genuine silent-era child star, Diana Serra Carey, alongside a 35mm print of the 1924 film she starred in as Baby Peggy, The Family Secret, showing Sunday afternoon). And then there are the usual screenings at your favorite cinemas, like the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, launching an Andrei Tarkovsky retrospective tonight, or the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, now in the second week of its new summer calendar. Yerba Buena Center For the Arts is screening a nearly-six-hour Lav Diaz epic not once but twice. There's absolutely no way for anyone do experience a fraction of all this.

But The City Luminous: Spectral Canopy Variation is less than a fifteen-minute loop, and it's free and convenient to any passers-by in the neighborhood. A few of the aforementioned activities particularly are in close reach; if you survive all 338 minutes of a political drama from the Philippines at Yerba Buena, you're just a block from Mission and Annie Alley and what are another fifteen minutes of viewing (with four screens visible at once from some angles, it's like watching an hour of movie in a quarter the time!) A.L.A. conference attendees are also right in the neighborhood.

I'm very proud of Kerry for having executed this installation, and I'll miss being able to see it as I wander in SOMA in the evening, although I'm excited to see the next four-screen videos in the California Historical Society's nearly year-long Engineers of Illumination series (Scott Stark kicked off the series in the Spring with Shimmering Spectacles and Kevin Cain more meditative The Illuminated Palace is set to open Thursday, July 2nd, followed by pieces by Ben Wood and Elise Baldwin; all five will then reprise for shorter stints in the final months of the year).

It's not the only art exhibit featuring my girlfriend to come down this weekend. She's also the subject of Saul Levine's film As Is Is, the namesake of a gallery show ending today at the Altman Siegel Gallery on Geary near Market Street in which it screens (as digital video) along with moving image portraits by Kevin Jerome Everson, Anne McGuire, Jem Cohen, Tony Buba and others.

Laitala's The City Luminous: Spectral Canopy Variation is one of several moving image works she's premiered or will be premiering this year to mark the PPIE centennial, most of them named for one of the original night-time lighting effects presented by Walter D'Arcy Ryan at the fair a hundred years ago. She'll be presenting more of these works at an Oddball Films soiree on July 9th, and at a free show at Oakland's Shapeshifters Cinema on July 12th. These will be multi-projector performances with live soundtracks from local experimental music duo Voicehandler. Among the performances will be reprises of Spectacle of Light, their collaboration which won an audience award when presented at the 2015 Crossroads festival this past April. Three of Laitala's 3D chromadepth works will also screen at these shows, including Chromatic Frenzy, a piece that recently screened in Brooklyn as an apertif for Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language as part of a 21st Century 3D series. Kerry also asked me to perform a live keyboard accompaniment to a single-channel 16mm film called Side Show Spectacle at the July 9th Oddball screening. I hope you can make it to one or both of these upcoming shows!

HOW: The City Luminous: Spectral Canopy Variation screens as four video files projected through four separate, synched video projectors.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Leave Her To Heaven (1945)

screen capture from 20th Century Fox DVD
WHO: John M. Stahl directed this.

WHAT: This is what I wrote about this film the last time I saw it on the big screen seven years ago:
Movie buffs know how Leave Her to Heaven's sunny technicolor exteriors mask truly sinister impulses underneath. It's not for nothing that the film is frequently the sole full-color entry into the film noir canon. With such a reputation preceding, audiences don't have to guess whether Gene Tierney's longing stare at Cornel Wilde on their early New Mexico train ride portends eventual doom. Tierney's affection-starved green-eyed-monster is no simple rich bitch or cut-and-dried psychotic. Even in her most despicable moments, the audience is asked to empathize with the motivations, if not the twisted logic, behind her devastating acts. As a result, Leave Her to Heaven becomes as cutting an indictment of repression as anything by Ingmar Bergman.
WHERE?WHEN: Screens 7:30 PM tonight only at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.

WHY: I suspect I compared Leave Her To Heaven to Bergman in the above-quoted paragraph because I saw it within a year after the latter died, a period in which I viewed or re-viewed quite a few of the Swedish master's works in cinemas or on home video. During that period I didn't happen to have seen very many films by two other perhaps more sensible comparisons: Douglas Sirk or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose work more directly relates to Stahl's. Sirk, making melodramas at Universal Pictures in the 1950s two decades after Stahl's period there, ended up re-making three Stahl films, each showing in the PFA's Stahl retrospective: Imitation of Life, Magnificent Obsession and When Tomorrow Comes (which was re-titled as Interlude when Sirk got a hold of it). As I've mentioned here before, Imitation of Life and Interlude were among the Sirk films that are said to have initially influenced Fassbinder in turn in the 1970s, but I wouldn't be shocked to learn one or both of these auteurs hadn't seen Leave Her to Heaven as some point as well- in fact its colors make it feel more proto-Sirkian or Ali-esque than the mid-1930s Stahls are (I've yet to see When Tomorrow Comes and am greatly anticipating it June 26th.) My other favorite Stahl film thus far is the 1933 Only Yesterday, which was later remade by yet another legend, Max Ophuls, as Letter From an Unknown Woman. It's hard to decide which is a better version, as I noted when picking it as one of my top repertory experiences of 2014.

Though no Sirk, Fassbinder or Ophüls films screen at the PFA for the rest of 2015 (I sadly missed Ophüls' From Mayerling to Sarajevo last week and hope the print circles back somehow), Fassbinder is one focus of another big cinema event starting tonight, the 39th annnual Frameline festival. A new documentary made by one of his contemporaries screens at the Castro next Tuesday, just a few weeks late for what would've been the openly bisexual German radical's 70th birthday. The following afternoon the same space will show Fassbinder's final feature Querelle, unfortunately not on 35mm as Frisco Bay audiences were lucky to see it in 2013. Other films about classic queer and queer-allied filmmakers screening at Frameline this year include Peter Greenaway's Eisenstein in Guanajuato, Stephen Winter's Jason and Shirley, about the making of Shirley Clarke's Portrait of Jason, Jeffrey Schwartz's Tab Hunter Confidential, and Feelings Are Facts: the Life of Yvonne Rainer, about the living-legend dancer and filmmaker who came of age in San Francisco. Though I have not seen any of these (besides Querelle) I can heartily recommend another Frameline film to cinephiles: Jenni Olson's The Royal Road, which I saw at the San Francisco International Film Festival and which I think I loved as much as I did The Joy of Life, one of the first films I reviewed on this blog when I started it ten years ago.

HOW: The entire Stahl series is expected to screen in 35mm prints from Universal, Criterion or the UCLA Film and Television Archive; hopefully this will indeed come to pass as I feel a bit remorseful that last week I steered readers to a Kirsanoff program that was advertised as 35mm but ended up screening digitally after all.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Ménilmontant (1926)

WHO: This was written and directed by Dimitri Kirsanoff, and starred his wife Nadia Sibirskaïa who, according to Monica Nolan's just-published SF Silent Film Festival essay, may lay some claim to being a co-director on at least some of their collaborations.

WHAT: Though I just saw this a couple weeks ago, I'm in a rush, so let me quote my friend Jeremy Matthews, who just ranked this film #14 on a list of the 100 Best Silent Films which made me realize just how similar our tastes are (although he loves Buster Keaton far more than I even do):
Watching Ménilmontant is a deeply felt experience. Impressionist filmmaker Dimitri Kirsanoff takes the dreamlike qualities of silent cinema to their natural conclusion, letting the story float by alongside haunting imagery without any intertitles directing hot to interpret the story. Kirsanoff made only one other film before this bold work, which starts abruptly and brutally with a man murdering a couple, then follows a love triangle involving the dead parents’ two daughters once they’ve grown. For all his cinematic innovations, Kirsanoff is not too hoity-toity to to tug the heartstrings, and a scene with a kind old man on a park bench is one of the most touching you’ll ever see.
WHERE/WHEN: 7PM tonight only at the Pacific Film Archive.

WHY: The beginning of the month saw the tail end of the 20th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which I'm still in the midst of writing my final wrap-up report on. In the meantime, you can check out the preview pieces linked at Keyframe Daily and wrap-ups by Donna Hill, Meredith Brody, Mary Mallory, David Mermelstein, and, if you have the inclination toward the spoken rather than written word, the Cinephiliacs podcast, in which attendees Peter Labuza and Victor Morton discuss several of the screened films. Peter kindly name-checks me in this episode, even though I've been so lax in keeping this blog up-to-date that I haven't even mentioned yet the fact that I was honored to be a guest on a prior episode of his podcast in which we talked about my path into cinephilia, the San Francisco screening scene, and other topics but especially Christopher Maclaine's 1953 masterpiece The End.

I'd wanted to write a post of footnotes about the many points I in retrospect wish I could've expanded upon during our fast-paced discussion, but I have a feeling that's not going to happen which is just as well as I'm very happy with the way the piece came out thanks to Peter's editing, and humbled to be added to his illustrious guest list. I will say one thing about the podcast: that I hope no listener has the impression that I've programmed more than one film for YBCA, that being The Company during last summer's Invasion of the Cinemaniacs series, as Joel Shepherd is handily taking care of that himself (this month's New Filipino Cinema and the upcoming David Cronenberg series prove he knows exactly what he's doing). I've programmed only a little more than that for the San Francisco Public Library, but tomorrow afternoon's free 16mm "ATA @ SFPL" showcase at the Noe Valley Public Library is one I and my co-programmers are particularly proud of.

Steering back to Ménilmontant: it a highlight of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for many people, but I'm glad it's showing again tonight as the second program in the PFA's final 2015 calendar. Final because the PFA will soon be moving its screening space from the "temporary" location it's inhabited at the corner of Bowditch and Bancroft for more the fifteen years. It's final day in the purple-chaired classroom-style room is August 2nd, and the institution is expected to reopen in 2016 at a location on the West side of the UC Berkeley campus, closer to BART and Shattuck Avenue. Glad because it will be great to see it paired with another Kirsanoff/ collaboration Autumn Mists, put into greater context as part of an incredible centennial tribute to La Cinémathèque Française's legendary founder Henri Langlois that also includes rarely-shown films by Ernst Lubitsch, Jean Grémillon, Abel Gance, Jean Renoir, Erich von Stroheim and many more, and woven into the fabric of eight weeks of PFA programming that shows its commitment to both expanding the canon and offering chances to reaffirm it in the best possible projection setting as well as ever. This weekend's launching series include tributes to comics W.C. Fields and Laurel and Hardy and a forgotten silent serial, and later on the venue will host a night of Indian video art and 35mm-heavy Andrei Tarkovsky, John Stahl and Victor Erice retrospectives, the latter paired with a hefty selection of his own favorites drawn from cinema history.

I'm also glad because...

HOW: When Ménilmontant screened at the Castro nearly two weeks ago it showed digitally with a score by the ever-reliable Stephen Horne. This presentation was strong enough to fool at least one filmmaker in the house into thinking it was 35mm, but tonight's screening is a chance to see the real thing: the Cinémathèque Française is supplying a print, which will be able to screen at 18 frames per second rather than the digital standard (unless you're a hobbit) of 24 fps. The musical accompaniment will be by another of my very favorite pianists, Judith Rosenberg, bucking the tradition of silent-era films shown in silence that Langlois is famous for. This is a tradition that barely exists in the Bay Area cinemas, and as a silent-film-music appreciator (and occasional practicioner) it's not one I'm particularly eager to see get a foothold. But I am curious why, if the PFA is not planning to employ Rosenberg to play music for Queen Kelly on July 24th anyway, they don't give us a little sample of this Cinémathèque Française sonic tradition, just to hear what it's like for once.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Monte-Cristo (1929)

A scene from Henri Fescourt's MONTE-CRISTO, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 - May 7 2015. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
WHO: Besides Alexandre Dumas, père, who wrote (or actually co-wrote with Auguste Maquet) the famous novel from which this screen adaptation was based, the best-remembered creative involved in this film's creation is probably Lil Dagover, who performed in this French film a decade after her roles in Fritz Lang's the Spiders and Harakiri,and in Robert Weine's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

WHAT: I haven't seen this yet, so let me quote from a recent article by David Cairns:
If the style is modernist (also: extreme close-ups; zip-pans; swooning drifts in and out of focus; a shot of a sparkling sea when the hero, long imprisoned in the dark, is blinded by daylight), the settings are gloriously traditional, with lavish sets, augmented by special effects, elegant costumes and varied exotic locations.
WHERE/WHEN: 1:00 today only at the Kabuki, courtesy of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF).

WHY: Monte-Cristo is one of the last serials produced during the silent era in the country that made such an early and critical mark on the form with multi-episode films like Les Vampyres and Judex. Seriality of course now dominates popular cinema, at least at this time of year, even if we don't always admit it to ourselves. For those who enjoyed attending UC Berkeley's conference and screenings on seriality in silent cinema and beyond this past February, attending today's screening is a no-brainer.

Monte-Cristo was not long ago restored from disparate sources in various archive, and is presented as the carte-blanche selection of Mel Novikoff Award winner Lenny Borger, who will be interviewed by Scott Foundas on stage prior to the showing. Recent recipients of this award have included critics (David Thomson, J. Hoberman, the late Manny Farber & Roger Ebert), archivists (Serge Bromberg, Kevin Brownlow, Paolo Cherchi Usai) and programmers/exhibitors (Anita Monga, Bruce Goldstein, Pierre Rissient, the late Peter Von Bagh.) This is, I believe, the first time the award is going to someone who is best known for his work as a subtitler. It's high time, as this key role in the transmission of international cinema is often taken for granted, especially in a near-insatiable market for foreign films like that of the Bay Area, where a recent trend of exhibiting films with utterly (and often obviously, even to a linguistic ignoramus) amateur subtitle translations has gotten a foothold in at least one prominent independent theatre.

Is it ironic that a subtitler has chosen a silent film as his presentation selection? It makes me wonder if he is able to enjoy watching a film with subtitled dialogue without giving the translations his own professional critique.

Of course Frisco Bay loves its silent films and usually embraces another opportunity to see an obscure one on the big screen. We're coming up on a season of many such opportunities, as the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is just around the corner at the end of this month (aforementioned Bromberg, Brownlow, Goldstein and of course festival director Monga all expected to attend) and the Niles Silent Film Museum has just issued its newest calendar pdf, including the line-up for its Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival in late June.

SFIFF also provides two more silent film screenings, both with live musical accompaniment, this week. Cibo Matto performs to a 35mm print of Marcel Duchamp's Anemic Cinema (as well as some more recent works in which they will replace an original soundtrack with their own) Tuesday, and Kronos Quartet provides the music for Bill Morrison's recent compilation of World War I footage on Wednesday.

HOW: Screens from a digital master (the only way this particular restoration exists), with Borger's preferred musical accompaniment recorded onto the digital "print".

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Today's the final screening of the excellent program of experimental shorts that I discussed Wednesday, and of the animated shorts program I touched on last weekend. It's also the first screening of local filmmaker Jennifer Phang's sci-fi feature Advantageous (full disclosure: I'm friends with Phang and her editor Sean Gillane, and contributed to this feature's crowd-funding campaign. I bought my ticket to tonight's show and can't wait!)

NON-SFIFF OPTION: Today SF Cinematheque hosts a video/performance variation of the incredible installation Kit Young had up at Artists' Television Access earlier this year, as well as performance from Any Puls and others.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

layover (2014)

A scene from Vanessa Renwick's LAYOVER, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 - May 7 2015. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
WHO: Vanessa Renwick made this.

WHAT: I've only seen a handful of items from Renwick's extensive filmography; essentially only the ones collected on this DVD (I plan to place an order for this one soon). What I've seen reveals her accomplishment in many filmmaking tools and techniques, but the film that has stuck with me most over the years is Britton, South Dakota, a found footage piece that apparently involved minimal intervention on her part. Yet those few strokes: selecting a particular nine minutes of images from two and a half hours of footage shot by one man in one town back in 1938, and finding music to go with it, turned the footage into a particularly haunting form of contemporary art.

Her latest short piece, a 6-minute work called layover, is a stunningly beautiful cine-poem documenting the swirling flight patterns of a group of Vaux's swifts (a West Coast relative to the more famous chimney swift of the Eastern U.S.) as they make their annual stop at a Portland school building (which looks like a repurposed factory smokestack) on the way down their migratory path toward Central America. In this case Renwick's interventions are not nearly as apparently minimal as those in Britton, South Dakota, although I do not know whether or not the footage, shot in HD by perennial collaborator Eric Edwards (also director of photography for many Gus van Sant films), was captured with Renwick present. I have no reason to think she wasn't on hand, directing Edwards and his assistants to shoot the material she knew she'd need for the edit, but it's possible that, like Ivan Besse's footage in Britton, South Dakota, these images were something Edwards had caught without Renwick's involvement, and that she instead instigated their formation into a work unto itself.

Either way, there is an element of the swifts' abstract patterning that foreground's the camera's role in preserving fleeting, unstaged moments. Their spirals and funnels sometimes resemble the animated motions found in a Jordan Belson film, but were not choreographed by any animator besides the instinct and social behavior of Mother Nature. This is a film that invites particular reflections on the role of humans and their inventions in relation to the fabric of organic matter we're surrounded by and indeed part of, whether we're present to that fact or not. Max Goldberg recently put it more succinctly: "each time the awed camera bucks or racks focus to keep up with the flock, it’s a reminder of our human weakness for wanting to hold what will not be held."

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 9:30 PM tonight at the Kabuki Theatre, and 6:30 PM this Sunday, May 3rd at the Pacific Film Archive, both courtesy of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF).

WHY: Max Goldberg's article, linked above, is from his wrap-up on SF Cinematheque's Crossroads Festival, which occurred earlier this month. He doesn't mention that layover in fact kicked off the very first program of the entire weekend-long festival, its uplift making an ideal opening to a weekend full of flights into unknown spaces. If the order of films in the Nothing But a Dream: Experimental Shorts program at SFIFF this year is the order of showing, then layover will again provide the first images of the program, and for those who may have missed out on Crossroads, an ideal opening of a month of SF Cinematheque co-presentations and presentations.

The "Nothing But a Dream" program is the annual SFIFF show programmed not by festival staff but by Kathy Gertiz of the Pacific Film Archive and Vanessa O'Neill of Cinematheque; it includes works by artists frequently showcased by those institutions, like Janie Geiser and T. Marie, as well as relative newcomers like local Zachary Epcar, whose terrific short Under the Heat Lamp an Opening is the first of his pieces screened at any of these three partnering organizations (its slightly-earlier showing at Crossroads shouldn't take away from the prestige of this premiere; this time Epcar is expected to be on hand for audience questions after the showings).

SF Cinematheque has also joined as a co-presenter for Jenni Olson's latest feature The Royal Road, but also presents a couple of programs during SFIFF that have nothing to do with the festival: an Andrew Puls performance occurs (quite unfortunately) during the second screening of layover and its "Nothing But a Dream" kin this Sunday. And small-gauge film legend Saul Levine makes a rare visit from New England to Oakland next Tuesday, May 5th. Later in the month, after SFIFF is over, two more artists present work at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts: Kevin Jerome Everson on the 19th & 20th and Tommy Becker on the 29th. Further into the future, SF Cinematheque promises screenings of work by Zach Iannazzi & Margaret Rorison in August, Sandra Gibson & Luis Recoder in October, and Nathaniel Dorsky in November.

HOW: According to the PFA listing, all but three of the pieces in the "Nothing But A Dream" program screen digitally. Those three are 16mm prints: Ryan Marino's Old Growth, Jennifer Reeves's Color Neutral and Mike Gibisser's Blue Loop, July. Of course layover will be shown digitally, its native format.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Today's the final festival screenings of Andrei Konchalovsky's The Postman's White Nights, Alice Rohrwacher's The Wonders, Sergei Loznitza's Maidan, and the Chinese noir I wrote about on Monday, Diao Yinan's Black Coal, Thin Ice.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: The Castro Theatre (which incidentally has just revealed its May calendar) is screening a 35mm print of Alfred Hitchcock's Rope with a digital version of the Wachowskis' Bound.