Wednesday, February 4, 2015

IOHTE: Brian Darr

First, a hearty thank you to the seventeen other participants in 2014's "I Only Have Two Eyes" survey of Frisco Bay repertory and revival screenings; please check the final update of the hub page for links to each of their exceptionally diverse entries. I don't believe any film was mentioned by more than three participants, but there are certain trends; I feel like film noir was represented more than ever this time around, in keeping with its status as the Bay Area's seeming favorite repertory film genre.

As for my own list. More than in other years, the bulk of it is made up of films I had little or no expectations for when I entered the cinema to see them. A good half of them were made by directors whose other work as director has eluded me so far, and I hold relatively few auteurist preconceptions about some of the other half's directors, either. I don't know why I cherished these surprises more than I did years-in-the-waiting screenings such as Don't Look Now at the Castro, other than to guess that expectations built up over too long a period of time can be impossible to fulfill; I did find Don't Look Now to be devastating and remarkable and if I'd seen it an earlier year I might well have placed it on my list even if the competition from other screenings was fiercer. But this year, I just feel more attached to the following screenings:

Never Open That Door (Carlos Hugo Christensen, 1952), Castro Theatre, January 30th, 2014. 35mm. Introduced by Eddie Muller.

Noir City's 2014 festival was my favorite edition ever of Frisco Bay's highest-profile annual exhibition of cinema heritage. The international theme wasn't just window-dressing but a meticulously-crafted argument against the jingoistic notion that film noir was in essence a Hollywood construction, and I couldn't resist attending, for the first time, every single film shown during those ten days, including the Japanese and British films I'd seen on the Castro screen before or the ones I'd recently watched to prepare my Keyframe Daily preview. Among the festival's high points was a final-day showing of Martin Scorsese's personal 35mm print of Josef Von Sternberg's Orientalist nightmare The Shanghai Gesture, but my very favorite experience of the 10-day chiaroscuro marathon was seeing the first of the three Argentine noirs presented for their first gringo audience in decades- if not ever. Never Open That Door is an elegant fusing of a pair of complimentary (one urban, one rural, etc.) Cornell Woolrich adaptations that simply oozed tenebrific dread and reminded me that John Alton spent several years working in Buenos Aires before making his mark on Hollywood; I don't know if this film's cinematographer Pablo Tabernero ever crossed paths with Alton, but I'm intrigued by his background; he appears to have been a German exile named Paul Weinschenk, who changed his name while making documentaries for the loyalists during the Spanish Civil War before heading to Argentina. I'm thrilled to learn via the Noir City Annual #7 that this film is being restored with English subtitles (this screening was soft-titled) and better yet, reunited with another Christensen/Tabernero Woolrich adaptation called If I Die Before I Wake, and that screening foreign-language films at Noir City is not a one-year oddity but a new tradition.

Rich Kids (Robert A. Young, 1979) Roxie Cinema, March 8th, 2014. 35mm. Introduced by Mike Keegan & Jesse Hawthorne Ficks.

San Francisco's longest-running cinema the Roxie has for various sensible (and regrettable) reasons moved away  from screening much 35mm and 16mm in the past year, putting its energy into creative approaches to running a digital-era cinematheque with programs like this upcoming one. But for five days, in anticipation of the local release of The Grand Budapest Hotel, the Mission venue threw a 35mm feast of daily Wes Anderson features. This heartbreakingly hilarious and touching portrait of New York preteens from aristocratic but broken homes, an obvious touchstone for Anderson and/or frequent screenwriting partner Noah Baumbach, was nestled into the program one afternoon, and was a uniquely big-screen experience, as this reputed sole surviving widescreen print contains sequences cut from any panned-and-scanned video copies you might see floating around. Though directed by Young it was produced by Robert Altman when he was at the peak of his clout, and its approach to childhood feels more alien to modern filmmaking than Altman's own approach to environmental catastrophe that year (Quintet), and its showing helped set me on a path of Altman research and rediscovery that continued throughout much of the year and will pick back up again this month at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Passage à l'acte (Martin Arnold, 1993) New Nothing Cinema, March 26th, 2014. 16mm. Introduced by Mark Wilson.

As usual, a sizable portion of my viewing in 2014 was of the experimental film variety; screenings presented by familiar organizations like Oddball Films, the Exploratorium, the Pacific Film Archive and SF Cinematheque each had a distinct impact on my wider appreciation of cinema history. But there's nothing like a new venue, even if it's one that's been around for a while like New Nothing in SOMA. I'd heard about this space for years, but it wasn't until last March that I learned exactly where it was, what it might screen, and how I might find myself there. The occasion was the second in a year-long series of salons presented by Canyon Cinema filmmakers invited to draw from the collection of prints held by this stalwart film institution (which ended 2014 with some wonderful momentum). I attended far too few of these programs, but I'm so glad I made it out for my friend Mark Wilson's presentation of short investigations of human movement on screen. Martin Arnold in particular was a figure I'd long heard of but never seen for myself (like New Nothing) and to experience his optically-printed appropriation of an iconic Hollywood movie amidst great films by Ed Emshwiller and Jeanne Liotta felt like the ideal introduction to a master filmmaker's work. Although I do wonder how I would have reacted if I'd seen it when it was made in 1993, at a time I was immersing myself in industrial and other collage-oriented music but had yet to see my first Robert Mulligan film.

The Good Bad Man (Allan Dwan, 1916) Castro Theatre, May 31, 2014. 35mm with piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin. Introduced by Dr. Tracey Goessel.

As I noted in my preview piece on the 19th San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the SFSFF has been slowly but surely funding and presenting new restorations of the early collaborations between beloved superstar Douglas Fairbanks and still-neglected auteur Allan Dwan (they ultimately completed eleven films together, culminating in the 1929 part-talkie The Iron Mask.) The third of these restorations is the earliest of the collaborations presented so far; The Good Bad Man was only the second Fairbanks/Dwan picture, after The Habit of Happiness, but the restoration looked impeccable for a 98-year-old film screening at only 16 frames per second; it surely didn't hurt that pianist Donald Sosin performed the musical accompaniment as if he were trying to show up all of the weekend's other fine musicians after a year on the bench (I think he succeeded).  It also happens to be the best movie of the three, a perfectly balanced synthesis of Wild West action and romantic comedy. I've barely glimpsed Dwan's non-Fairbanks films, but with this I'm starting to get a sense of his spatial and structural sensibilities. It just so happens that another Dwan silent, this one starring Gloria Swanson rather than the King of Hollywood, screens this Saturday at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum. Tempting...

Screen capture from Music Box DVD of The Story of Film
Crucified Lovers: a Story from Chikamatsu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954) Pacific Film Archive, July 30th, 2014. 35mm.

Mizoguchi made some of the most emotionally potent political films ever, and this one, which I'd never seen before at all, edged ahead of my first 35mm viewing of his 1939 masterpiece The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum as the summit of my visits to the Pacific Film Archive's hearty director retrospective last summer. The inexorability of unfolding events, each peeling another layer off the rotten onion of patriarchal feudalism, held me transfixed to the screen.

Only Yesterday (John M. Stahl, 1933) Stanford Theatre, August 31st, 2014. 35mm.

It seems incredible that two entirely different films could both share the same title; I saw Isao Takahata's coming-of-age animation from 1991 and put it on my IOHTE list two years ago, and now I've caught up with this pre-code Hollywood employer of the same English-language title, as part of a Stanford Theatre World War I weepie double-bill with Random Harvest. Calling Stahl's Only Yesterday a melodrama in today's age sounds like a dismissal, but in this case the heightened emotions of its characters, particularly the sublime Margaret Sullivan (in her debut screen role!) are transmitted directly to the audience, making for an intense experience akin to that conveyed by its later, more famous remake Letter From An Unknown Woman, (which I also saw at the Stanford in 2014).

¡O No Coronado! (Craig Baldwin, 1992) Artists' Television Access, September 19th, 2014. 16mm. Introduced by Craig Baldwin and Steve Polta.

In 2014 my only "official" filmmaker interview was a mind-melting discussion with underground archivist and iconoclast Craig Baldwin, who summons the Other Cinema screenings most Saturday nights at the increasingly incongruous (and thus culturally valuable) Valencia Street microcinema Artists' Television Access. I also finally caught up with most of his films that I hadn't seen before (I'm still on the hunt for the elusive Stolen Movie). I was able to see a majority of them on the A.T.A. screen, either as part of its 30-hour marathon (of which I survived about fifteen hours of before the dawn showing of Damon Packard's brilliant Reflections of Evil sent me stumbling home for much needed sleep- or was it sanity) or this pair of programs. ¡O No Coronado!, Baldwin's 40-minute sub-feature made to commemorate commiserate the Quincentenary of Christopher Columbus's famed voyage (by presenting the story of a very different conqueror), employs perhaps his most elaborate and "effective" staged footage, shuffled together with ludicrous and expensive Hollywood detritus. His juxtapositions pull the rubber mask off the history-as-mythology industry that seems to dominate our collective understandings of the past.

Screen capture from Kino DVD
Little Fugitive (Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin & Ray Ashley, 1953) Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, September 22nd, 2014. 35mm. Introduced by Lynn Cursaro.

Full disclosure: of all the repertory/revival series of 2014, the one that loomed largest for me personally was one that I was honored to be chosen to be involved with myself: Joel Shepard of YBCA's gracious "Invasion of the Cinemaniacs!" series, the film component of the museum's triennial Bay Area Now focus on local artists and art communities. Shepard selected eleven local cinephiles (including six previous IOHTE contributors) to present a carte-blanche choice of a film at the YBCA's technically excellent, intimate screening space. I was humbled to be chosen, and humbled again to find that my buddy Ryland Walker Knight mentioned my selection (Altman's The Company) in his own IOHTE wrap-up this year. A few of the other Cinemaniacs selections have been cited by IOHTE 2014 participants such as Carl Martin and David Robson, but I'd like to single out a few that have been left unmentioned: Adam Hartzell's informed presentation of Korean drama Madame Freedom, Robson's lustrous program-closer The Brides of Dracula, and most importantly Lynn Cursaro's selection Little Fugitive, a wonderfully poetic, American-neorealist exploration of Coney Island through the eyes of a child who fears he might never be able to return home. Though co-directed by three filmmakers I was previously unfamiliar with, it's a film I've been waiting to see on the big screen for many years, ever since learning it was an early entry on the Library of Congress's National Film Registry. Watching a 35mm print in a room (half) full of cinema devotees was worth the wait; this is clearly one of the great films of its time (when television was just growing out of being a seductive novelty) and place (on the opposite end of the country from Hollywood).

The Puppetmaster (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 1993) Pacific Film Archive, November 14th , 2014. 35mm. Introduced by Kathy Geritz and Richard Suchenski.

This is the largest exception to the trend I mentioned in my introductory paragraphs: another film I'd been waiting for years to see on the big screen, in this case made by a director I already considered myself a committed fan of. In fact I'd hoped to see much more of the traveling Hou Hsiao-Hsien series brought by Richard Suchenski to the PFA in the last months of 2014 than I did; I'd have liked to attend every screening but scheduling consigned me to seeing only five films in the program. The Puppetmaster was the most revelatory for me of the five (although The Boys From Fengkuei came close) in terms of my understanding of Hou, and indeed (as I noted on twitter), in terms of my understanding of biographical storytelling modes in general. This no-admission screening was nearly full, which was especially gratifying after Suchenski noted that he'd essentially built the Hou series around his desire to see this film in 35mm, that it'd taken two years to negotiate to show it, and that it (and City of Sadness) would certainly become completely unavailable to view on that format after the tour concludes at the end of this year. Which has me giving sidelong glances to airfares after looking at the rest of the schedule...

Screen capture from Cohen Media Group DVD
The Book of Mary (Anne-Marie Miéville, 1985) Pacific Film Archive, November 29th, 2014. 35mm.

My favorite new film seen in 2014 was Jean-Luc Godard's 3D Goodbye To Language, which I saw three times (once for each dimension?) at the Rafael Film Center, the only Frisco Bay cinema it played in time for me to put it on my Top Ten list in time for Fandor's poll. (It screened at Berkeley's Shattuck Cinema in mid-December, and finally has its first showing in San Francisco at the Castro Theatre tonight). But my 2014 Godard experience was not limited to his newest work; the Pacific Film Archive provided many opportunities for me to fill gaps and revisit old favorites throughout the year, and I only wish I'd taken advantage of more of them (on the bright side the series is continuing through April.) Some of the films felt more impenetrable than wonderful, but they all had a touch of both qualities. Most pleasantly surprising, however, was the fact that my very favorite entry in the whole series was directed not by Godard, but by his longtime collaborative companion Anne-Marie Miéville, and screened, as it customarily does, before his 1985 release Hail Mary. It's a perfectly-realized short film, simultaneously naturalistic and expressionistic in its presenting a young girl's perspective on her parents' crumbling marriage (don't ask me why this theme recurs on this list.) Miéville is particularly gifted at framing her subject's body in motion, as in the above-pictured scene where she moves along to a section of Mahler's 9th Symphony. I attribute to The Book of Mary's effectiveness as a prelude the fact that I found Hail Mary to be my own favorite of the Godard films I saw at the PFA last year.

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