Friday, April 24, 2015

Ed & Pauline (2014)

Screen capture from trailer.
WHO: Famed film critic Pauline Kael and lesser-known film exhibitor Ed Landberg are the two subjects of this short documentary.

WHAT: If you've spent much time traveling in Frisco Bay cinema circles you've probably at some point heard that Pauline Kael was, before making an indelible mark on English-language film criticism, an important force in the local moviegoing scene. Kael was born in Petaluma, educated officially at the now-defunct San Francisco Girls' High School and UC Berkeley, and cinematically at places like (according to Brian Kellow's 2011 biography) "the Fox, the Roxie, the Castro and...the Paramount over in Oakland." She fell in with the San Francisco Renaissance crowd, living with and ultimately bearing a child by experimental filmmaker James Broughton.

Ed & Pauline, co-directed by former San Francisco residents Christian Bruno and Natalija Vekic, takes up at about this point, referencing Broughton only by still photograph and their daughter Gina only by a moment in the narration when Kael is described as a "single mother". For someone who has gleaned only the barest outlines of this period in Kael's life, this 18-minute documentary appears to do a wonderful job painting a richer portrait of how her early work as a freelance film critic in magazines and at the influential radio station KPFA led to her involvement with Landberg. In 1952 he had founded the Cinema Guild near the corner of Haste and Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, and which he (erroneously) liked to claim as the country's first twin-screen cinema. At any rate it was Berkeley's first repertory house and an early training ground for future Frisco Bay exhibitors like Sheldon Renan, Tom Luddy, Mike Thomas, and Bill Banning, each of whom are interviewed on-camera here (joined by more widely-recognizable figures like J. Hoberman and John Waters). Kael and Landberg formed a dual partnership: she began writing program notes for the Cinema Guild screenings, and later selecting the films to screen as well, and they got married. Both partnerships were fleeting.

Though this film's generous archival footage, engaging interview clips, and understated re-enactments might make it a fine brief introduction to the history of arthouse culture for a casual moviegoer, for a cinephile it's also tremendous fun to hear choice snippets of Kael's discussions of certain landmark films such as Letter From an Unknown WomanPassion of Joan of Arc and Night of the Hunter as scans of old Cinema Guild calendars are flipped through. Keen eyes will pick out the recurring auteur names (Chaplin, Renoir, Bergman, Flaherty, McLaren...) and feel a greater sense of the primordial cinema scene from which came the eventual champion of filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah and Brian De Palma.

Kael is much better known than Landberg, of course, but his part of the story is equally prominent, in part because Bruno and Vekic were able to interview him and even have him revisit the section of Telegraph where his cinema once stood (since filming, even the cafe that replaced it has been demolished). If, as Tom Luddy relates, Landberg was "the first exhibitor in this country to show Ozu in a truly crusading way" then as far as I'm concerned he's a genuine unsung hero.

One quote from Ed & Pauline particularly stood out for me. Mike Thomas, who would go on to run the Strand on San Francisco's Market Street, notes that "it's hard to imagine when these films were not all around us, but they were more legendary, than anybody actually got a chance to see them." For those of us who haven't fully embraced the ethereal future of all-digital cinephilia there's a deep sense of the loss of the screening as an unrepeatable event. Wayfinders like Kael and Landberg helped thirsty moviegoers locate water in the desert. Now we all can swim in an ocean, but are in no less need of divining rods to help us find fresh drink.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 7:30 tonight at the Pacific Film Archive, 1:00 on May 2nd at the Clay, and 6:15 on May 4th at the Kabuki, presented by the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF).

WHY: Tonight's screening is the only one happening in Berkeley, mere blocks from the Cinema Guild itself (and the scene of the crime of my first exposure to Kael's program notes, which I actually prefer to her reviews.) If you can fit it into your schedule you won't be sorry; I understand the filmmakers are expected to be present as well (I'm not sure if they'll still be in town for the later, San Francisco screenings).

But seeing this film at the SFIFF at all feels particularly vital as a stand for an institution proving it harbors no grudges- at least not after 54 years. Kellow's book on Kael devotes a paragraph to her withering opinion of the festival circa 1961: that "those who had paid $2.50, expecting to see a movie of quality, emerged from the festival 'sleepy and bored, asking, how could they have picked that movie?'" Especially harsh words about a year in which Jean Cocteau's The Testament of Orpheus, Luis Buñuel's Viridiana and Kent MacKenzie's The Exiles were all screened.

HOW: Ed & Pauline screens in front of a documentary co-directed by Gina Leibrecht and the late Les Blank, who worked together on 2007's All In This Tea; this new film is called How to Smell a Rose: A Visit with Ricky Leacock at his Farm in Normandy, a title self-explanatory to anyone who knows about Leacock, one of the instrumental figures along with D.A. Pennebaker and David and Albert Maysles in revolutionizing non-fiction filmmaking in the post-World War II era.  Both films show digitally.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Today's the sole SFIFF screenings of Liz Garbus's documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? about the phenomenal singer, playing at the Castro, and of the first of the "Dark Wave" midnight-ish screenings at the Roxie, Cop Car. It's also the first festival screening of Lisandro Alonso's critically-acclaimed Jauja at the Clay.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: A 35mm print of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window screens at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland tonight.

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