Saturday, October 22, 2016

Outer Space (1999)

Screen capture from Other Cinema DVD "Experiments In Terror"
WHO: Austrian filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky created this.

WHAT: One of those experimental short films that has the power to impress open-minded cinephiles who normally find themselves too bored, confounded, or otherwise alienated from the 'avant-garde' to enjoy non-narrative underground filmmaking, Outer Space is a triumph, both conceptually and in terms of the painstaking processes that created it. Tscherkassky started with a print of Sidney J. Furie's horror film The Entity, in which Barbara Hershey plays a single mother who survives repeated attacks from a ghostly rapist who has invaded her suburban home and ultimately attempts to defeat the titular assailant with the qualified aid of a team of parapsychologists. He manipulated footage of some of the film's spectral assaults on a light table, creating a film in which Hershey appears to be attacked by the material of film itself. It's an astonishing film, and the highlight of the Other Cinema Experiments in Terror DVD, but it works best when seen on its native 35mm format.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 9:30 tonight only at the Castro Theatre

WHY: The Castro doesn't frequently show experimental short films in front of the feature-length films that are its bread and butter, but when it does it's a cause for celebration among fans of this mode of filmmaking. Unfortunately it's not always a cause for celebration among all viewers. I heard reports that when Outer Space played before John Carpenter's The Thing in March 2007, there was a great deal of consternation from certain audience members who couldn't wait an extra ten minutes to see a gory remake of a Howard Hawks alien invasion movie. I heard that audiences were better behaved when it played there along with its more natural companion The Entity in early 2013. Here's hoping tonight's Halloween horror crowd is ready for its visceral scares when it plays between two established classics.

I'm pleased to announce that Tscherkassky's most recent film, The Exquisite Corpus, is also planned to screen in San Francisco soon; to be specific at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on a bill with a new (digitally-distributed) documentary about film projection called The Dying of the Light, playing there November 3rd and 6th. I'm excited to see both, but the 35mm print of The Exquisite Corpus is the special draw for me; I've been waiting for this one since his last film Coming Attractions played here more than five years ago.

HOW: 35mm print preceding the 9:30 35mm screening of Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (note: NOT the 4:30 PM screening as well), the second half of a double-feature also including the digital director's cut of William Friedkin's The Exorcist.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

In the Realm of the Senses (1976)

Screen capture from Criterion DVD
WHO: Nagisa Oshima wrote and directed this.

WHAT: In the Realm of the Senses is almost certainly the most-viewed Oshima film internationally, which I feel can be attributed equally to two factors: its high quality (I'd call it one of the two or three best of the dozen or so Oshima films I've managed to view, and I don't get the sense I'm alone in appreciating it narratively and formally) and its notorious reputation. The latter stems, of course, from, attacks on the film by censors over the years; it been banned from screening under obscenity laws around the world, including in parts of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany.

In Japan, where it was filmed, it to this day remains censored (though not banned, certain images including public hair remain obscured from all sanctioned home video and theatrical releases there). Oshima knew his film would be so treated in his country when he made it forty years ago, and correspondingly sent his film to be developed in labs in France to avoid "making his pure film dirty", as he would later decry the blurring and blacking out techniques that treat his film like it's porn. When my friend Adam Hartzell wrote about Oshima and In the Realm of the Senses on this blog on the occasion of an Oshima retrospective seven years ago, he noted that an uncut version of the film finally screened in Japan in 2000, but I've since learned that even that supposedly "uncut" print, while uncensoring female genitalia, still kept male genitalia obscured.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 7PM tonight only at the Roxie.

WHY: Today is the final day of the Roxie's Banned Movie Week, a brilliant idea for a series (that I hope becomes annual) inspired by Banned Books Week, which has been celebrated in libraries and schools during the final week in September since 1982. I highlight this screening on my blog today not only because In the Realm of the Senses is a terrific movie deserving of attention, but because it gives me an excuse to mention that after over ten years working for the San Francisco Public Library in various capacities, I've left that position and am now working for another local library system. My hours and responsibilities have increased somewhat, so I'm not certain I'll be able to keep up the rate of posting on this blog that I've been used to maintaining over the years (sometimes it's been a post per day or more, though there have been frequent periods where'd I'd post no more than once in a month; so far I've never gotten less frequent than that, but I can't guarantee that'll remain true). I still plan to be involved, on a strictly volunteer basis, in the ATA@SFPL group which, for over a year and a half now, has been organizing and hosting screenings of film prints from the SFPL 16mm collection. I wrote a bit about this group on this blog last year, and though I'm not certain what we'll be showing at our next expected screening in December, I'm sure we'll know pretty soon; our group's next event won't actually involve SFPL prints at all, but will be a short presentation at Other Cinema on Saturday November 19, in which we'll discuss the project and show a couple prints owned by local filmmakers whose work we became aware of during our archival explorations: Rick Goldsmith's Anatomy of a Mural and Christian Schiess's Luminauts.

In addition to Banned Movie Week, the Roxie is currently hosting the final few days of the SF Latino Film Festival, a couple digital screenings of anime classics, and the opening week-long runs of new releases like Danny Says and Spa Night to close out September. Highlights of October include a 35mm showing of Point Blank, two MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS showings including a new DCP of Stand By Me paired with a 35mm print of Creepshow and a double-bill of truly neglected sequels, the Walter Murch-directed Return To Oz and my favorite George Miller film Babe: Pig in the City. Both of those are also 35mm, as is the same day's locally-made indie Treasure Island. It's not yet determined whether Takashi Miike's (arguably) sickest film Ichi The Killer will screen as DCP or 35mm print on October 27th, the formats for what may be the month's most exciting series, a horror showcase featuring only films directed by women, have been announced. Expect 35mm prints of Katheryn Bigelow's vampire classic Near Dark and the late Antonia Bird's unbelievable Ravenous, and DCP showings of (I believe) natively-digital features The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears, The Babadook, and Lyle. Only Gloria Katz's Messiah of Evil and Karyn Kusama's Jennifer's Body will be shown on a format other than how they were filmed, and even the latter was, I understand, a hybrid 35mm & digital production.

HOW: In the Realm of the Senses screens as a 35mm print.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Screen capture from Cinema Guild DVD of Los Angeles Plays Itself
WHO: Robert Aldrich directed this. It was his fifth feature film as a director, after a storied career as an assistant director on films like The Story of G.I. Joe for William Wellman, Force of Evil for Abraham Polonsky, and M and The Prowler for Joseph Losey.

WHAT: When I think of Kiss Me Deadly I always think of one of my mentors in cinephilia Damien Bona, who I met through an online film discussion forum about eighteen years ago, and (only once) in person thirteen years ago. He considered Aldrich's film not only the greatest of all films noir but also one of the ten greatest films of all time. Bona died in 2012 and a memorial website has republished a list of his 100 favorite films, as well as his top ten with commentary, in which he calls Kiss Me Deadly "Brutal, hilarious, groundbreaking and impudent. Both Aldrich's visual style and his send-up of American machismo are absolutely audacious. Irresistible." He wrote more on the film, and specifically about Cloris Leachman's first-ever film appearance, which happened to be in this film, in his book Opening Shots: The Unusual, Unexpected, Potentially Career-threatening First Roles that Launched the Careers of 70 Hollywood Stars, which I unfortunately do not have handy to quote. In a tome filled with embarrassing debuts, Leachman's stands out as one of the most fortunate beginnings ever to befall a future star. Kiss Me Deadly is indeed a spectacular film worth revisiting frequently.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens tonight only at 8PM at the Castro Theatre

WHY: I don't want to give away anything about Kiss Me Deadly that might mar the experience for a first-time-viewer, but anyone who's seen it knows why it's the perfect choice for programmer Elliot Lavine's final double-bill at the Castro (along with the 1951 Arch Oboler post-apocalyptic thriller Five). If you hadn't heard by now, Lavine, an ace movie-selector best known for his longstanding relationship with the Roxie Theatre, but who had programmed regularly at other places including Auctions By the Bay, the California and the Castro, is moving to Portland. It was unsurprising that Mick LaSalle, in his recent article about Lavine's Frisco Bay departure, went so far as to call him our "last great programmer"; anyone who pays close attention knows that LaSalle favors Lavine's programming over all other local repertory. Though I consider the Chronicle headline an insult to a minimum of a half-dozen other local film bookers, there's no question that Lavine's particular style gelled particularly well with a certain portion of Frisco Bay cinephilia, and that his imaginative sensibility will be sorely missed.

Kiss Me Deadly was in 1999 inducted into the National Film Registry, the Library of Congress's annually-growing list of "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" American moving image works. The range of films included on the list is impressively varied; that year also saw the induction of the 1914 ethnographic documentary In the Land of the War Canoes, the 1936 Chevrolet-sponsored short Master Hands, and, on its first year of eligibility, Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing as well as twenty-one other films from pretty much every era and mode of American filmmaking.

This Friday is the last day for the general public to submit its suggestions of films to enter the Registry in 2016. Anyone can nominate up to 50 different titles for potential inclusion on the registry. In the past I've sent my list in privately, but I see no reason not to share it on my blog this year. In fact, I even solicited suggestions from my twitter followers for titles they thought deserved induction this year, which I'd add to my list in exchange for their vote for a film that I feel particularly merits it: San Francisco beat poet Christopher Maclaine's 1953 experimental masterpiece The End (which prefigures Kiss Me Deadly in a few ways itself, come to think of it).

Without further ado, here are forty-nine of the fifty titles I plan to submit to the Library of Congress on Friday. If you want to follow my suit and nominate this whole slate, there's nothing stopping you! Or pick and choose titles you feel are worthy and add your own suggestions to the mix. I've reserved the fiftieth slot on my list for another suggestion (within reason) from one of my blog readers who agrees to vote for The End (1953), so leave a comment if you want to do that.

1. The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985). Clay animation pioneer Will Vinton is as yet unrepresented on the Registry list. One might argue for one of his shorts having a better shot at induction, but this feature film, with its astonishing "Mysterious Stranger" and delightful "Adam and Eve" sequences is my pick.

2. The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943). Deanna Durbin was one of the biggest stars of her era, and yet none of her films are on the Registry. This great one is set (for the most part) in San Francisco, and was mostly directed by an uncredited Jean Renoir, whose Hollywood years haven't been acknowledged on the Registry as yet either (his better-known French years are of course ineligible).

3. Beggars of Life (1928). Like Renoir, Louise Brooks is best known for her European career, which is surely why she hasn't been added to the Registry in its 26 years of existence. Unlike Renoir, she was a Kansas native whose absence seems shocking. This is my favorite of her American films.

4. Belfast, Maine (1999). I haven't seen this Frederick Wiseman documentary but one of my twitter followers vouches strongly for it and agreed to vote for The End (1953) if I included it in my submission. I believe Wiseman was the first documentarian to see two of his films (High School in 1989 and Hospital in 1994) enter the Registry, but hasn't had any new inductions since then.

5. Betty Tells Her Story (1972). Another twitter-follower suggestion I haven't seen, but this short directed by Liane Brandon sounds eminently fascinating and worthy of inclusion as "one of the earliest films of the modern Women's Movement".

6. Black Panthers (1968). I'm not sure this short documentary (sometimes known as Huey) directed by Agnès Varda while she was in the Bay Area is technically eligible, as it's generally considered a French film. But I believe it was shot entirely in Oakland and captures an important and still-relevant moment in American history. It screens with other Varda films on the opening weekend of the newly-expanded SFMOMA's just-announced inaugural film screening program. More on that on this blog later.

7. Blackie the Wonder Horse Swims the Golden Gate (1938). Another Frisco Bay non-fiction work, and another twitter-follower suggestion. This time it's one I've seen (projected in 16mm by Stephen Parr of Oddball Films) and it's also available on youtube.

8. Blow-Out (1981). To me, the single-most shocking absence from the National Film Registry, at least among living filmmakers, is Brian De Palma. I always include a few of his films on my submission lists. This one is surely one of his greatest and most haunting films.

9. Carlito's Way (1993). Other years I included the famous Scarface remake, but after seeing the director describe this as his best film in the recent De Palma documentary a few months ago, I feel it makes more sense to stump for this follow-up collaboration with Al Pacino. It would also mark screenwriter David Koepp's first appearance on the Registry.

10. Carrie (1976). My third and final De Palma suggestion this year. Such an important American social and aesthetic statement, and a huge commercial hit to boot. I'm a little shocked it hasn't been inducted before.

11. Christmas Holiday (1944). Another terrific Deanna Durbin picture, this one uncharacteristically somber and adult, belying its sweet-sounding title.

12. The Dot and the Line (1965). Possibly the best cartoon made by Chuck Jones after he left the Warner Brothers studio for MGM, this was another twitter-follower suggestion.

13. The End (1953). One of the greatest films of all time, according to me and a few other people. I talked about it on the Cinephiliacs podcast last year.

14. The Fall of the I-Hotel (1983). This documentary about San Francisco's history of eviction and protest, as crystallized in one landmark battle on the edge of Chinatown, is probably the best film I've seen as part of a project I've participated in over the past year and a half going through the San Francisco Public Library 16mm collection. I wrote the note for it here. Our next screening, incidentally, is Alain Resnais's Night and Fog on September 13; I also wrote this program note.

15. Fragment of Seeking (1946). Curtis Harrington is another figure absent from the Registry thus far. I might pick one of his later, more commercial features like Night Tide, but this early short, which may beat out Kenneth Anger's 1947 Fireworks as a gay filmmaker's avant-garde debut, seems more "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

16. A Girl In Every Port (1928). Another option for a Louise Brooks film, it would also become the first silent-era Howard Hawks film on the Registry.

17. The Good Bad Man (1916). I'm not sure why no film directed by the prolific and highly influential Allan Dwan has made it onto the Registry in 26 years. I'm not sure this little-known early Douglas Fairbanks Western is the most likely of his films to become inducted, but it's wonderful and would be a great choice in my opinion, especially in its centennial year.

18. Heaven's Gate (1980). In the year that director Michael Cimino died, I think it would be a particularly fitting tribute for his notorious but masterful third feature film to finally enter the Registry (The Deer Hunter was inducted way back in 1996). Bonus: A great Isabelle Huppert performance would be entered as well.

19. High-Diving Hare (1949). Chuck Jones, Robert Clampett, Tex Avery and Frank Tashlin are all represented in the National Film Registry. (Jones, at least, has multiple films inducted.) This leaves Friz Freleng as the most major of the "Termite Terrace" animation directors without a film on the list. This Bugs Bunny cartoon is my personal favorite of his films, and would also mark Yosemite Sam's first appearance.

20. It Started With Eve (1941). My third and final Deanna Durbin suggestion this year (I'd include His Butler's Sister as well except that a Frank Borzage-directed film was inducted last year). A magical romantic comedy also starring Charles Laughton, it's probably the most characteristic of her great films I've seen so far, and would be an ideal "populist" choice.

22. The Lady of the Pavements (1929). Mexican-American star Lupe Velez is another figure thus-far left out of the Registry. Her starring role in this late D.W. Griffith silent film is perhaps her best showcase.

22. M (1951). Joseph Losey is another American (Wisconsin-born) whose Hollywood career was interrupted (in this case by McCarthyism) but who is too important a figure to be missing from the Registry entirely. I'm probably one of the few people who actually slightly prefers his Los Angeles remake to Fritz Lang's Berlin classic original, but I don't think it's outlandish to put it forth for posterity in this way. 

23. The Man Who Laughs (1928). Though German-exile star Conrad Veidt does appear on the Registry in his most famous talking role, as a villain in Casablanca, this heroic role would be a wonderful addition to the list. Fellow emigre Paul Leni only directed a few films in Hollywood but this is a great one and would be an ideal entry to the NFR.

24. Matewan (1987). This is another twitter-suggestion that I (shamefully) have yet to see for myself. But I understand it's one of the great dramatizations of political history made in my lifetime. It would only be director John Sayles' second film on the Registry, after his debut Return of the Secaucus 7 was inducted in 1997.

25. Mikey & Nicky (1976). There's no denying that Elaine May is a national treasure. So it's strange that she's almost completely missing from the National Film Registry- unless her walk-on role in The Graduate (inducted in 1996) and her uncredited writing on Tootsie (inducted in 1998) count. I'm putting forth a couple of her films as writer-director on my suggestion list this year. Mikey & Nicky is my personal favorite of her films.

26. Murder in the Rue Morgue (1932). French-American director Robert Florey is not the most respectable of Hollywood auteurs; he was extremely prolific but mostly in B-pictures. But he deserves a slot in the Registry and this Bela Lugosi-starring Universal horror movie feels like his best shot. I love it.

27. A New Leaf (1971). My other Elaine May suggestion is perhaps more likely as a debut induction since it's a) a comedy, the genre which she's best known for and b) features her tremendous acting skill as well.

28. Nitrate Kisses (1992). Barbara Hammer's absence from the National Film Registry grows more glaring with each passing year. I'm not sure if this extremely moving film, which features nudity of a decidedly non-pornographic nature, is the most likely of hers to gain her entry to the list, but I'd love to see it inducted.

29. Paris Is Burning (1990). Jennie Livingston's documentary on the New York City "ball" scene perhaps most famous for inspiring Madonna's "Vogue" video has been frequently mentioned by others as a prime candidate for NFR inclusion, and I'll happily join this campaign.

30. Pigs Is Pigs (1937). Another Friz Freleng cartoon suggestion. This one features perhaps the most sinister and harrowing situation ever shown in a mainstream animated short.

31. Pomo Shaman (1964). A documentary record of shaman Essie Parrish doing her healing ceremony in California. Beautifully made by photographer and filmmaker William R Heick with assistance from anthropologists David W Peri and Robert Walter Wharton, and from cinematographer Gordon Mueller. It should be available to view here.

32. The Prowler (1951) My "other" Joseph Losey suggestion this year, in case M seems too off-the-radar. This gripping and socially conscious noir is available in a terrific restoration from Frisco Bay's own Film Noir Foundation. Either choice puts another Robert Aldrich-assistant-directed film onto the Registry, joining the Wellman and Polonsky films mentioned at the top of this post.

33. Reflections of Evil (2002). I have no real expectation that a Damon Packard film, much less one as brilliantly twisted as this, might make it to the Registry. But I have to try.

34. Retrospectroscope (1996). Even if acclaimed filmmaker Kerry Laitala wasn't my girlfriend I'd think this mesmerizing 16mm film based on a paracinematic sculpture of the same title merited any marker of posterity; I saw it well before we started dating anyway. I'm sure I'm not the only one voting for a friend's film. Anyway, it's screened at many festivals and micro cinemas and is discussed thoroughly in 2013 book Speaking Directly: Oral Histories of the Moving Image.

35. Rich Kids (1979). 91-year-old Robert M, Young has writing credits on two Registry inductees, Nothing But A Man (inducted 1993) and To Fly! (inducted 1995). But no film he's directed has made it on the list. This beautifully-observed view of teenagehood would make a fine addition, in my opinion.

36. Rumble Fish (1983). Another twitter-follower suggestion, and one I'm particularly pleased to follow. Director Francis Ford Coppola has seen four films enter the Registry, but none since Apocalypse Now was entered in 2000, all from the 1970s, and none featuring this Stewart Copeland score and this cast. Phenomenal.

37. Rushmore (1998). Also a twitter-follower suggestion I can really get behind. It's the first Wes Anderson film I (and many others) ever saw back when it was released, and it's still in many ways my favorite. Definitely my pick to be Anderson's debut NFR entry.

38. Sherlock Holmes (1916). This one's more "culturally, historically" than "aesthetically" significant, but it really is the former, as the only filmed record of William Gillette, in his day the definitive performer of the famous Arthur Conan Doyle character on stage. It was considered lost for nearly a century before re-debuting at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival last year.

39. Silver Lode (1954). My final twitter-follower suggestion is another Allan Dwan film, but in this case one I haven't seen yet. Any Dwan film that has a good shot of being inducted, I can get behind.

40. Some Came Running (1958). Vincente Minnelli may be well represented on the NFR (my quick count shows he directed at least five films listed), but his non-musicals are still sorely under-represented, and will be until this remarkable achievement (for Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Shirly MacLaine as well) gets inducted.

41. Sonata For Pen, Brush & Ruler (1968). Few films consist of as much concentrated, pure visual beauty as this outstanding short made by experimental animator Barry Spinello. It happens to screen October 19th as part of the long-missed Alternative Visions program, according to the new BAMPFA print calendar.

42. Southern Comfort (1981). There may be other Walter Hill films better poised to be the director's Registry debut, but this one, which I saw for the first time at the New Mission earlier this year, strikes me as a pretty good candidate, given its great cast, story and attention to the specifics of two clashing milieus: "weekend warrior" reservist soldiers and reclusive Bayou dwellers that could pass for subjects of a Les Blank documentary.

43. Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). Simply, Buster Keaton's best film not yet entered into the NFR. No further argument needed.

44. Take Off (1972). Gunvor Nelson may be too often thought of as Swedish to feel deserving of a film in the Registry. I disagree, especially considering she was living in the Bay Area when she made many of her best short films. This one is a playful, feminist gem and a tour de force of optical printing.

45. Tribulation 99 (1991). Not necessarily my own personal favorite of Craig Baldwin's culture jamming radical manifestos (that would be the following year's ¡O No Coronado!) but almost certainly the one most likely to go down in history as a major statement at a major moment by a major filmmaker (admittedly one I'm friendly with personally). So lets start the process as soon as possible!

46. Underworld, USA (1961). No Sam Fuller films have been placed on the Registry since Shock Corridor twenty years ago. This gangland saga would be my first choice for a second selection from his filmography. It's bold, intense, and influential, and nobody but Fuller could've made it.

47. Wagon Master (1950). It may seem that John Ford has been amply honored by the National Film Registry, with more than a handful of films selected from among his storied career. But I feel there's room for at least one more, especially this one with its yearning for an America in which good people from different backgrounds cooperate for a common purpose.

48. Wanda (1970). Barbara Loden famously only directed one film but it's a doozy and its penultimate placement on this list shouldn't imply anything other than W's late placement in the alphabet. If I could only vote for five and not fifty titles, it'd still make the cut.

49. You Oughta Be In Pictures (1940). My third Friz Freleng selection is the semi-autobiographical retelling of his straying from the Warner Brothers lot to take a contract with MGM between 1937 and 1939, using Daffy Duck (interacting in a live-action environment) as his avatar.

Let me know what you'd pick in the comments!

HOW: Kiss Me Deadly and Five screen together, both from 35mm prints.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

How To Survive A Plague (2012)

Screen capture from official trailer
WHO: Directed, co-written and co-produced by journalist David France- absolutely not to be confused with 2016 Presidential non-candidate David French.

WHAT: Thirty days ago it was the 35th anniversary of the first official reports on what would soon be known to be HIV/AIDS. They were presented by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention on June 5, 1981 and subsequently reported on by the media; the first New York Times article was July 3, 1981. Since that time an estimated 36 million people around the world have died as a result of the disease. It's believed that an even greater number live with HIV today, and that fewer than half of them have access to the anti-retroviral medicines that can keep them in good health. As grim as these numbers are, they represent a huge amount of progress. Rates of transmission and death are decreasing on every continent. Treatment availability is on the upswing nearly everywhere. For this we must thank not just the doctors and scientists fighting the disease, but also the activists who pushed against the homophobia of governments, the media, and even parts of the medical industry, to make HIV/AIDS a priority.

How To Survive a Plague is one of the most inspiring documentaries about political activism ever made. It demonstrates the immense creativity and passion of activists fighting for an HIV/AIDS cure, vaccine, and better treatment in a most immediate, intimate style. The appearance of HIV/AIDS coincided with the invention of the video camcorder, which for the first time allowed individual citizen/journalists to record hours of audio/video footage completely independently (previous video recording devices required a separate technician to handle sound recording). In an age of convenient camera-phones we take for granted how revolutionary this development was for democratizing media.

How to Survive a Plague director David France collected thousands of fellow activists' tapes of highly creative ACT UP and TAG demonstrations and passionate gatherings, and has weaved the highlights together into a coherent and persuasive story of the ten years of struggle that led to the release of protease inhibitors, combination therapy and the first significant drop in the AIDS death rate. It's a remarkable document of the gay community rising to meet a collective challenge, featuring footage that will feel like a predecessor to powerful protest movements of the 21st century. It's the kind of movie that can bring a spark to any viewer's personal activist spirit.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 7PM this evening only at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts screening room.

WHY: I can hardly think of a better Frisco Bay venue in which to see How to Survive a Plague, as a particularly moving moment in the documentary (pictured in the above screen shot) occurred a hop, skip and a jump away at the Moscone Center, where Peter Staley enlisted a vast hall filled with convention-goers into participating in a powerful activist moment. Activism can sometimes take the form of a small, simple, but powerful act of solidarity. No wonder the Oscar-nominated feature screens in conjunction with the YBCA's current art-as-activistm-oriented exhibit Take This Hammer, named for a 1964 documentary featuring James Baldwin which played in the YBCA screening room a couple of years ago, and which is now looped in the gallery lobby daily during open hours (free for anyone to view, not just on a day like today when the entire exhibit is open to the public at no cost). Art critic Ben Davis has contrasted the exhibit against the more ballyhooed re-opened SFMOMA across the street, by calling it a "raw, woolly, sometimes inspiring and disturbing show, representing struggles that are important to think about if you don’t want to become entirely cynical about the future of art or the future of the city."

I have only taken a bit of Take This Hammer in myself thus far, but I already feel galvanized in small but profound ways by it; while at YBCA to view Chantal Akerman's No Home Movie last may my girlfriend Kerry Laitala picked up a poster made by the incredible San Francisco Poster Syndicate, which was passing out political art to attendees that evening. Without a good place to display it so that her neighbors could see, she asked if I'd hang it in my window. Little did I know that just a couple weeks later the subject of the poster would pass underneath it while campaigning with Jane Kim in my neighborhood. Did he see it? Who knows. But it made me all the happier that I was able to vote for him (and for Kim) in the California primary last month. Neither candidate is perfect of course, but I'll be happy to support Kim in November as well, and I hope that Sanders' influence is felt in platform that the Democratic nominee campaigns under between now and then (and of course I will vote for Clinton, given the alternative). I'm pretty sure that it's just a coincidence that Kerry was honored to be named to the YBCA 100 shortly after our visit, but it's certainly a happy one.

I believe this is the final Take This Hammer-inspired event in the YBCA screening room. Today there is also a series of films in conjunction with another YBCA exhibit The Ocean After Nature. Starting July 15th, the venue becomes the surrogate host for its neighbor the Jewish Museum's screening series of Stanley Kubrick films accompanying its current exhibit of the master's props, costumes, designs, etc. YBCA screens all his black-and-white films through July. Rumor has it that the Alamo Drafthouse will show the color films in August, but I have yet to see a schedule for those. Meanwhile, that month, YBCA hosts archivist Jack Stevenson as he puts the spotlight on San Francisco's erotic filmmaking history with a screening of Randy, the Electric Lady.

HOW: Screens as a video; all the footage in the film was captured by video cameras of various generations.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Golden Chance (1915)

Screen capture from Image DVD
WHO: Cecil B. DeMille directed, produced, edited and (with Jeanie Macpherson) co-wrote this film.

WHAT: This is one of my very favorite DeMille pictures, and I even selected it as object of study for a collaborative blogging project several years ago (that seems to have propagated an image to the wikipedia page for Japanese actor Yutake Abe, if nothing else more lasting). Later that year, my friend Laura Horak wrote an article about it and a pair of other Cecil B. DeMille films (as well as one directed by his brother William) released on DVD for The Moving Image journal. Here's an excerpt from her article:
The story follows Mary Denby (Cleo Ridgely), a "Cinderella of the Lower East Side," who escapes from grueling tenement life and her abusive husband, Steve (Horace B. Carpenter), for one magical night. The film is surprisingly explicit about the way money and sex are intertwined. Seeking work as a seamstress, Mary enters Mr. and Mrs. Hillary's "House of Enchantment," where they convince her to play the part of a socialite for a night, unaware that her real purpose is to charm a young millionaire, Roger Manning (Wallace Reid), into investing in Mr. Hillary's business venture. At first, Mary is happy to play her role in exchange for one night of luxurious clothes, shoes, and jewelry but, even after suspecting the nature of the exchange, desperate poverty forces her to accept the money. 
WHERE/WHEN: Screens tonight only at the Edison Theatre in Niles, CA, as part of the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival.

WHY: The Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, while perhaps not as glamorous or public-transit-accessible (or expensive!) as the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, deserves equal consideration from Frisco Bay silent film fans. Its film programming is in many ways just as strong- and for film purists stronger -, its musical accompaniments not as flashy but equally adept and professional, and its extra features, including a walking tour and a train ride, represent a world away from the hustle and bustle of Castro Street.

Additional screenings at this year's festival include rarities and proven favorites from the Essanay Studios which made Niles a movie hub for a few years a century ago, and a pair of films starring the Gish sisters, Nell Gwyn with forgotten Dorothy and a masterpiece (directed by Swedish import auteur Victor Seastrom) The Scarlet Letter with the legendary Lillian.

Of this year's festival screenings, I'm probably most interested in seeing Behind the Front, a Wallace Beery war film whose title seems to refer to the 1919 film that was the big discovery of the SF Silent Film Festival earlier this month for me and for quite a few other festgoers, Behind the Door. Beery played a villain in that, and stole the show out from under Louise Brooks in the festival opener Beggars of Life. I'm especially anxious to see it because it screens with Broncho Billy and the Bandit's Secret, a 35mm made-in-Niles production released just last year, but still unscreened in San Francisco (it's hard to find venues willing and able to show a modern-day 35mm silent short film). 

If you can't make it this weekend, the July Niles schedule has been announced and includes a Gary Cooper Western, a Clara Bow flapper film, a Lon Chaney circus tragedy, and much, much, much more. July schedules for the Stanford, the Castro, YBCA and BAMPFA are also online, so start planning your month if you haven't already!

HOW: Screens from a tinted 16mm print, along with 35mm prints of 2 Niles-produced shorts Broncho Billy's Wild Ride and Slippery Slim and the Impersonator, all with live keyboard accompaniment from Jon Mirsalis.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Nanook of the North (1922)

Screen capture from Music Box Films DVD of The Story of Film
WHO: Robert Flaherty directed this. He was also a producer and (uncredited) writer and cinematographer on the piece.

WHAT: The last time I watched Robert Flaherty's seminal Nanook of the North I was sitting in on a City College of San Francisco course taught by Ira Rothstein. He introduced the showing with a quote from Jean-Luc Godard on fiction or "narrative" films: that they are "nothing more than documentaries of actors at work."

One might say the same thing about non-fiction or "documentary" films as well (I use quotes around the word "documentary" because the term was not in use at the time Nanook of the North was made). Acting is not just merely a profession, marked by its connection to training facilities and professional guilds.  It's also an action that each of us has learned to perform to make it through the varied situations of the modern world.  And when we are conscious that there is a camera trained upon us, we tend to "act" differently than we otherwise would, whether we want to or not.  If the photographer explicitly asks us to pose or to perform a certain action, we're all the more likely to be pulled out of the actions we would take were a camera not present; we may attempt to conform to the requester's expressed wishes, or else rebel against them, but it becomes difficult if not impossible to act as we would if we didn't know the camera was there.

As one learns when watching Claude Massot's 1988 documentary Nanook Revisited (available on the Flicker Alley Blu-Ray edition of Flaherty's film), Nanook of the North was made with the hearty cooperation of its Inuit subjects.  Indeed Allakariallak, the actor who played the title character (Nanook was not his real name) was delighted to comply with his director's requests, which included: acting as if he had not heard a phonograph record before, when in fact he had, and engaging in a walrus hunt using methods that he and his fellow tribesmen had not employed for years - which Erik Barnouw seems to imply was actually an idea generated by Allakariallak himself, knowing it would be in sync with Flaherty's own aims in encasing in the amber of celluloid film the singular traditions of the Inuits.  

It's often noted that Nanook and its offspring like Chang (Cooper & Shoedsack, 1927) are not "pure" documentaries because the actions of their subjects were not merely observed and captured, but directed by their makers, and because they're edited, with the help of title cards, into a narrative form that distorts fact in the service of adventure and excitement (and, say the cynical, box-office). But is there not documentary value in seeing people perform tasks that, even if they may be obsolete on a day-to-day basis, are still in their living muscle memory? Allakariallak may or may not have ever hunted walrus without a rifle himself, but at the very least he'd known people who'd had no other option, and was a far more authentic choice to do so on screen than any Hollywood actor would have been.  As Barnouw wrote about the Inuits involved in the film: "Unquestionably the film reflected their image of their traditional life."

WHERE/WHEN: Nanook of the North screens today only at the Castro Theatre, at 1:45 PM, presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

WHY: Though I haven't seen the shorts screening as part of the Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema program launching the 21st SFSFF's final day, nor the Hal Roach two-reeler What's the World Coming To?, which plays as part of the Girls Will Be Boys noon program, I've seen all five "feature-length" films screening today: Ernst Lubitsch's I Don't Wan't To Be a Man (the other piece of the aforementioned gender-bending showcase), Nanook of the North, Fritz Lang's haunting Destiny, Rene Clair's final silent Les Deux Timides and the mindblowing Douglas Fairbanks extravaganza (and Victor Fleming's directorial debut) When the Clouds Roll By, though of these only Les Deux Timides in a cinema with live musical accompaniment.  If I could see only one of them again today (and I'm so grateful that this is not so) it would be Nanook. Though I'm excited to finally see the Lubitsch, Lang and Fleming on the Castro screen with an audience, I remember them all (and it's been quite a while, especially for Destiny) as films with incredible scenes rather than as incredible films from start to finish. Nanook is a more consistent, coherent work despite its controversial aspects.

Despite being the most famous of today's films, it also seems the least likely candidate to screen again in a Frisco Bay venue any time soon. I could picture When the Clouds Roll By appearing at the Stanford Theatre, for instance (Victor Fleming seems pretty popular there; his most famous film Gone With the Wind screens July 1-3 to celebrate Olivia de Havilland's 100th birthday). And it's been long enough since the last Lubitsch, Lang, and especially Clair retrospectives at BAMPFA that I wouldn't be so surprised to see their films show up there (though I wouldn't count on it either). Nanook of the North could appear as well, but since it's screening SFSFF as a BAMPFA co-presentation I rather doubt it would be soon.

Probably the most likely venue to show any of these films again is the most consistent silent film venue around: the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum's Edison Theatre, the same room where Charlie Chaplin watched movies over 101 years ago. Next weekend the Edison will play host to two days and one night full of Chaplin film screenings as well as a Chaplin look-alike contest on Sunday in honor of the annual Niles, CA Charlie Chaplin Days. The following weekend Chaplin's The Vagabond opens a four-film program of comedy shorts also including a Charley Chase film, a Laurel & Hardy, and Buster Keaton's Cops (in case you missed it at SFSFF yesterday), all in 16mm with live piano accompaniment from Judith Rosenberg. And the final weekend of June is given over to the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, whose line-up seems especially strong this time around, with an opening night showing of my favorite early Cecil B. DeMille drama The Golden Chance (RIP Bob Birchard), a Saturday evening show including this year's SFSFF MVP Wallace Beery in Behind the Front, and a Gish-filled Sunday afternoon with Dorothy in Nell Gwyn followed by her better-remembered sister Lillian in the excellent Victor Seastrom adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. Not to mention a plethora of one-and two-reelers shot in Niles and/or other Essanay locations, including the 2015 throwback Broncho Billy and the Bandit's Secret, which was shot in the area by a modern crew using vintage equipment. Diana Serra Carey (the former silent-era child star Baby Peggy) is among the cast members.

But I suspect Niles is not likely to show Nanook of the North in the near future, if only because it just screened there this past February and repeats of that sort are rare for this venue.

HOW: Nanook of the North screens via a 35mm print, with live musical accompaniment from the Matti Bye Ensemble.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Balloonatic (1923)

Screen capture from Kino DVD
WHO: Buster Keaton co-wrote, co-directed and stars in this alongside Phyllis Haver, perhaps the biggest female star he ever played opposite, at least in the silent era. Haver is perhaps best known for playing Roxie Hart in the 1927 silent Chicago, but she worked with many top directors such as John Ford (in 3 Bad Men), Raoul Walsh (What Price Glory), Howard Hawks (Fig Leaves) and D.W. Griffith (The Battle of the Sexes) and retired very shortly after talkies took over in Hollywood.

WHAT: Keaton's penultimate short before making the switch to feature films later in 1923 (tentatively at first, with The Three Ages, which could easily have been broken into short films had it flopped as a feature). He'd revert back into the short film world in the mid-1930s, well into the talkie era.

Without giving away any of the film's gags, it's fair to say that The Balloonatic is not one of Keaton's most inventive films story-wise, but it still features many very wonderful and hilarious sequences, including some of his most physical work to that point in his career. You really get a sense of Keaton battling the elements (quite literally, as he takes on air, water, fire and even earth, in approximately that order).

WHERE/WHEN: Screens this morning at the Castro Theatre, on a San Francisco Silent Film Festival program beginning at 10AM.

WHY: The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has been gradually working its way through showing all of Buster Keaton's silent films. By my count they've shown the following features over the years: Steamboat Bill, Jr. in 2000, Go West in 2003, Our Hospitality at the February 2009 Winter event, Sherlock, Jr. at the December 2009 Winter event, The Cameraman in 2012, The Navigator in 2014, and The General at the 2014 Silent Autumn event. Which leaves only six more of his eligible features unscreened by the organization (for the record: The Saphead, Three Ages, Seven Chances, Battling Butler, College and Spite Marriage) But then there are the shorts. I believe SFSFF has shown The Cook (in which he's the featured player to Roscoe Arbuckle's star), The Goat, The Love Nest, One Week, The Scarecrow, The Playhouse, and The Blacksmith. Today Cops and The Balloonatic add to that list, leaving another eleven shorts in which he stars, and thirteen in which he features with Arbuckle. At this rate, it'll take the 21-year-old festival at least another 21 years to come close to covering Keaton's entire pre-talkie filmography. It'll be quite a while before they'll have to start scraping the bottom of the barrel, or resorting to repeat showings. Cops is one of my very favorite of his shorts, and The Balloonatic is excellent as well.

They screen this morning along with The Battle of the Century, a Laurel and Hardy short that has not been seen in its complete form in decades. It's no coincidence that pianist Jon Mirsalis makes his long-delayed return to SFSFF playing the accompaniment for this program, as he's the one who found the long-missing reel 2 in a private collector's stash and brought it to public light for the first time (although a very small portion of the film still remains missing- so check your attic!) Also on the program: the delightful/disturbing (can't decide which) French short The Dancing Pig.

Also screening SFSFF today are Axel Lindblom & Alf Sjöberg's The Strongest and Anthony Asquith's debut Shooting Stars, neither of which I know much of anything about, Black American director Oscar Micheaux's earliest surviving film Within Our Gates, Rene Clair's most famous (but not my personal favorite) silent film The Italian Straw Hat, and finally The Last Warning. This, Paul Leni's final film before his untimely death from an infected tooth in 1929, was the 2016 SFSFF film I was most excited to see programmed when the schedule was initially announced, simply because it was one of the few films that I'd heard of but never seen before. After yesterday's disappointingly corporate-boilerplate-heavy Amazing Tales From the Archives presentation from the Universal team involved in its digital restoration, I'm actually slightly less interested in seeing it tonight than I was before. But I probably will anyway, and am thankful that the other Amazing Tales presentations were strong enough that it was still well worth running out the door early for. The Last Warning will have to be pretty amazing to match last night's late-show screening Behind the Door, perhaps the only silent film that ever made me think of Quentin Tarantino and Abel Ferrara by the end.

HOW: Both the Keaton shorts, the Battle of the Century and the Dancing Pig are expected to screen digitally, with live piano accompaniment from Jon Mirsalis.

Friday, June 3, 2016

That Night's Wife (1930)

Screen shot from Eclipse DVD
WHO: The great Yasujiro Ozu directed this. It's my personal favorite of his pre-1932 work, or should I say, the half of his output from this period that still survives in full or in part. So much of Japanese cinema history of this era is lost to us.

WHAT: When I last saw this on the big screen (at the Pacific Film Archive) I found it so compelling it made my list of best repertory screenings of 2011. But I'll all the more excited to revisit the film after reading Imogen Sara Smith's marvelous essay on the film in the newly-published San Francisco Silent Film Festival program guide. Here's a brief excerpt:
There has been a long-running debate about whether Ozu was essentially a formalist, an experimental filmmaker, as Bordwell argues, or whether, as Donald Richie contends, he was primarily interested in a singular narrative theme, the dissolution of the family. That Night's Wife shows how these two impulses were integrated as one: to tell a story through purely cinematic means. 
WHERE/WHEN: Screens 3PM today only at the Castro, as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

WHY: Thanks to David Hudson for including me in his essential Keyframe Daily round-up of articles about this year's SFSFF. Read all the articles linked there, and listen to Andrea Chase's excellent podcast interview with Anita Monga, and you'll get a pretty complete picture of this festival weekend.

Today is perhaps the day I'm most excited about overall, with the Amazing Tales From the Archives program, two Bay Area-shot features (A Woman of the World was shot in Pleasanton and Mothers of Men was made in Santa Cruz, Berkeley and Sacramento- thanks to Michael Hawley for alerting me to this website highlighting the locations where it was films), and the newly-restored submarine thriller Behind the Door, starring Wallace Beery, who stole the show from Louise Brooks last night in Beggars of Life. I've never seen any of these before. I have seen E. A. Dupont's Variety but only via a very poor VHS transfer, and am excited to watch it on the Castro screen with a 14-piece orchestral accompaniment.

HOW: Carl Martin of the Film on Film Foundation has published a detailed report on all the 35mm presentations at this year's SFSFF, and That Night's Wife is among these. It will screen with live piano accompaniment by Maud Nelissen, who is making her SFSFF debut with this presentation. She is actually the first woman to perform a SFSFF musical accompaniment on her own, unless you count Judith Roseberg's performances for Champagne and Easy Virtue at the festival-produced Hitchcock 9 program three years ago. 

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Beggars of Life (1928)

Screen capture from Criterion DVD
WHO: Louise Brooks features as one of the three lead performers in this film, her first major dramatic role according to the Louise Brooks: Looking For Lulu documentary found on the Criterion edition of Pandora's Box, and which features short clips from Beggars of Life including the one I took a screen capture from for the above image (which doesn't do anywhere near justice to how this film looks on 35mm). I wrote a long-ish essay on Brooks the last time the San Francisco Silent Film Festival opened with one of her films, Prix de Beauté, and don't have much of an update of thoughts about her after less than three years. But read on:

WHAT: Brooks fans who fall in love with her European phase are sometimes disappointed that she plays a less traditionally glamorous role in this film, but in all honesty it's a terrific, if superficially atypical, performance for her. Reportedly she enjoyed making this film more than any other. But it's also a great showcase for Richard Arlen, made after Wings but before Thunderbolt, the Four Feathers and Tiger Shark (to name a few of my other favorite Arlen films), and was in fact sold as a Wallace Beery picture upon its initial release.

On some days, I think Beggars of Life is my very favorite film in which Louise Brooks appeared (noting that I have yet to see a few important ones, including her screen debut The Street of Forgotten Men). It's a constantly surprising train thriller with great performances all around-- only one character's arc (Blue Washington as Black Mose- a very interesting character undermined in his last reel) is a disappointment. And the filmmaking is frequently astonishing- some of director William Wellman's best work, deploying multi-exposed frames as a storytelling engine with a boldness unparalleled in narrative cinema until the the 1960s, unless I'm forgetting something.

If you want to read more about Beggars of Life you can't go wrong with Laura Horak's essay originally published in the 2007 SFSFF program guide. (Much more on that in a bit.) This was the last public screening of the film in a Frisco Bay cinema, according to Thomas Gladysz of the Louise Brooks Society, who has posted a comprehensive list of all local theatres that ever advertised screenings of the film, going back to 1928. He's also prepared a collection of international screening ephemera, and I might as well also link to his review of the 2007 Castro showing.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 7PM tonight only at the Castro Theatre, opening the 21st San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

WHY: Writing this post inspired me to pull out one of the program guides I saved from the 2007 SFSFF, in which Beggars of Life also screened. It put me in a wistful mood, so let me recount my full history with the festival, something I've never done on this blog before. 

I first learned about SFSFF in 1999, while attending a Truffaut double-feature at the Castro and seeing flyers out for the 4th annual program, which was to screen Wellman's Oscar-winning Wings among other films (I hadn't heard of the others before at that time: Love, By the Law and a set of short animations). I was intrigued but already had river rafting plans that weekend, so filed the event away for future investigation. I missed the 2000 festival because I was living abroad, but upon my return I made sampling the 2001 SFSFF a priority. Out of the four programs that July Sunday I selected the Italian Maciste all'inferno to attend, and was simply blown away, not by the film itself, which was rather mediocre, but with the enthusiasm of the costumed crowd around me, and the presentation itself, which included a surprise Koko the Clown short beforehand, an enlightening introduction, and of course a tremendous musical accompaniment, in this case by pianist Michael Mortilla. I regretted not having planned to attend the whole day of screenings, though in the meantime I've since caught up with the other three features shown that day. (Peter Pan and It in cinemas, and thus far Within Our Gates only on Turner Classic Movies; I'm excited to finally have another chance to see it at the Castro this Saturday!)

In 2002 & 2003 I caught half the programs, attending a full day of showings each year (the festival had just doubled in size) but having to work the other weekend day. These were my first experiences seeing Cecil B. DeMille, Harold Lloyd, and King Vidor films on the big screen, and I knew I was hooked. In 2003 I was able to volunteer for the festival as an usher, making the financial sting a little easier on my struggling wallet. In 2005 I volunteered in the festival office a couple days, got to meet the friendly folks who put on the event, and signaled my interest in joining the volunteer research committee, which prepared the information-packed festival essays and slideshows for each program. In early 2007 (after covering the festival as press on this blog in 2006) I was invited to join that group, which was and still is one of the biggest honors of my movie-loving life.

It was quite an experience for a humble blogger with lots of passion for silent film but only a short history watching it and no formal training or expertise, to sit down at a table with the other members of the group, which included SFSFF board member (now president and film restorer) Rob Byrne, TCM writer and editor extraordinaire Margarita Landazuri, the brilliant David Kiehn of the Niles Film Museum, and rising star scholar Laura Horak (who will present the Girls Will Be Boys program at the festival on Sunday, in conjunction with her newly-published book of that title about gender-fluidity in silent cinema). At that time there were still few enough programs, determined far enough in advance, for a group of nine of us (the amazing Shari Kizarian contributed to and edited the program book and slideshows from her home abroad) to discuss our research and writing ideas around a table of snacks in the festival office for months before the program needed to be printed. I learned so much, not only about silent film, but about writing and being edited, from being allowed in that group. No other single experience as a writer has marked my cinephilia in such a profound way.

I ultimately wrote seven 1200-word essays for the festival between 2007 and 2011, about films (sort-of) spanning five continents: Miss Lulu Bett (North America), Jujiro (Asia), Sunrise: a Song of Two Humans (set in an undetermined location, filmed in North America but based on a European story), The Gaucho (Hollywood-ized version of South America), West of Zanzibar (Hollywood-ized version of Africa), Man With a Movie Camera (Europe) and I Was Born, But... (again Asia). By the last couple years, however, the festival had expanded to four days and it became impossible to fit all the program book writers around a table in the festival office, or to lock in all the programs with enough advance notice for amateurs in the group (mostly I mean yours truly) to work at the pace we'd been accustomed to. The program book is more than an oversized pamphlet now, but a glossy publication, and the essays have stepped up a notch or three to match; now they're written by some of the leading silent film scholars, critics and journalists around (including some of the same folks who I was so honored to share a table with nine years ago-- I can't wait to read what David Kiehn has to say about the Wallace Beery submarine thriller Behind the Door when I pick up my program tonight!)

But thumbing through that old "oversized pamphlet" provides a stark reminder of some of the many changes to San Francisco over the past nine years, through the ads alone. In 2009 the booklet started placing them in the back, but in 2007 they were interspersed throughout the 48 pages. The inside front cover has an ad for KDFC, which still exists but has moved down the dial to the 90.3 frequency that my old favorite community radio station KUSF occupied until 2011. Film Arts Foundation, advertised on the same page as Kizirian's wonderful Hal Roach essay, completely dissolved into the San Francisco Film Society in 2008 and nothing really has emerged to fill some of its most important shoes (support for experimental work, providing access to equipment, etc.) An ad for the region's best source for rare movies on VHS and DVD, Le Video, sits between Landazuri's essay on Camille and Horak's on Beggars of Life; it shuttered late last year and although Alamo Drafthouse announced plans to integrate its collection into that of Lost Weekend Video, which as of this past April now occupies part of the New Mission lobby, I've yet to hear any indication that this will actually happen anytime soon. Turn the program guide page and there's an ad for Booksmith, which changed ownership in 2007 and jettisoned its once-incredible silent film book section; now SFSFF partners with Books, Inc. for its amazing line-up of Castro mezzanine book signings. Perhaps the hardest of them all is the loss of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which is advertised underneath Richard Hildreth's barnstorming essay on DeMille's The Godless Girl; this weekly paper had by far the best film, arts and politics coverage of any local print newspaper, and it pressed its last issue in 2014.

As sad as it is to contemplate all of these losses over the past near-decade (and as sad as losing a vital institution is, it cannot compare to the human toll change has taken on San Franciscans; it was such an irony that the SF Chronicle published an article praising Wellman's quasi-remake of Beggars of Life on the same day another of its cruel campaigns against homeless people succeeded) makes it all the more heartening that an institution like the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has thrived and grown in these years. Now in the business not only of presenting films in the best possible way, it also undertakes restorations of important classics and forgotten gems, like this year's record FIVE re-premieres: Mothers of Men, Behind the Door, The Italian Straw Hat, What's the World Coming To and Les Deux Timides. That all five of these are finished on 35mm ought to gladden celluloid purists who might take note that although there's a slightly higher proportion of digital presentations in this year's festival than ever before, SFSFF will still screen just as many all-35mm programs as it did back in 2007 when there were ten programs not counting "Amazing Tales From the Archives" (which still exists as a major part of the festival, and is still free, although donations are becoming more emphasized). 
And although the festival is noted for annually showcasing many of the world's most-anticipated silent film restorations, it's very nice to know that the 35mm print of Beggars of Life set to screen tonight is the same one, I'm told by festival director Anita Monga, that showed on Saturday night of the 2007 festival, the first and last time I and maybe a thousand or more people ever saw it on a big screen. The musical accompaniment, which I recall was wonderful last time, will be the same as well. In a world in which the new so frequently threatens to pave over the old, there's something very comforting about that kind of consistency.

HOW: 35mm print from George Eastman House, with live musical accompaniment by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Just like in 2007, as noted above.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Many Thousands Gone (2015)

WHO: New York filmmaker Ephraim Asili made this.

WHAT: This 8-minute short opens with a title card explaining a bit of context  for what we're about to see:
The original 1861 Customs House was partially destroyed in a fire in 1986. After reconstruction, it was transformed into a tourist market, the Mercado Modelo. When shipments of new slaves arrived into port, they were stored in the watery depths of this building while awaiting auction. Night guards report all sorts of phantasmic activity after closing hours...
The text is about a structure in the Brazilian port city of Santiago, which the San Francisco International Film Festival website takes care to note was the last city in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery. The next image is of a group of people dancing, drumming, and otherwise congregating on the veranda of the Mercado Modelo, facing the Bay of All Saints, for which the state that Salvador is the capital of, Bahia, got its name. On the soundtrack we hear what we think might be quiet drumming, and then we see a cut to another title card, this one attributed to the Patron Saint of Cinema St. Tula, a key figure at Bard College, where Asili teaches: "Love the Scratch. Love the Grain. Love the Lightleak too. They are the lines, the freckles, and the suntan upon the face of cinema." This film was shot on 16mm film stock and transferred to video without trying to hide that fact whatsoever. Grain, Lightleaks, and even a Scratch or two are indeed evident and indeed contribute rather than detract from the textural beauty of the image.

With another cut we're elsewhere, although we may not realize it yet; we see water against a curb and we may think we're looking at the edge of the Bahia. The camera makes a hand-held tilt to reveal this was the water from a Harlem street hydrant. But with another cut we're back in the Brazilian bay (the above image, which I shamelessly grabbed from a Facebook event page), on a boat. By now we're starting to realize that the "drumming" sound in fact emitted from a wind instrument being played as percussion. Air is blown through a the tube (my guess is that it's a trumpet) and keys are tapped in rhythm, but never enough to produce what might be called a "note". It's a virtuoso performance of beautifully "non-musical" sound that continues throughout the piece, and that we in the end learn was created by a multi-instrumentalist named Joe McPhee. The images, alternating between street and sea scenes, Harlem and Salvador, dancers and musicians and the natural world around them, are perfectly accompanied by McPhee's emittances, which are summed up perfectly from a quote from Alice Walker's The Color Purple follow-up The Temple of My Familiar, which I will leave a surprise for the viewer.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens as part of the SFIFF's Shorts 4: New Visions program, 8:45 PM at the Roxie tonight.

WHY: Many Thousands Gone has screened a couple times already in Frisco Bay cinemas. It was part of a one-person show Asili attended at Oakland's Black Hole Cinematheque last December, and I caught it when it screened last month on the first night of SF Cinematheque's annual Crossroads experimental film & video festival, on a program also including Helen Levitt, et. al.'s In the Street and Khalik Allah's stunning Field Niggas. Crossroads programmer Steve Polta's very tightly thematically-focused programming may have done a small disservice to Many Thousands Gone; its formalist traits seemed a bit swallowed up sandwiched between two powerful experimental documentaries. So I'm thankful to SFIFF for giving it another big-screen chance to shine.

Specifically I'm thankful to Chi-Hui Yang, former director of the SF International Asian American Film Festival (now CAAMfest), who filled in to put together the SFIFF New Visions program in the absence of Sean Uyehara, who had for over a decade taken the lead in making selections for this annual showcase/Golden Gate Awards category as well as the Animated Shorts program, the annual match-ups (or should I say mash-ups) between indie rockers and silent films, and more. Uyehara's deep knowledge of both the film and art worlds (not to mention the music world) helped him create New Visions programs that consistently placed some of the most formally-focused short films and videos together with the most conceptually-oriented festival selections. His touch is missed as he moves on to new pastures at the Headlands Center For the Arts in Marin. (although he came back to interview Peter Lord on-stage at the Castro last weekend).

But Chi-Hui has put together a very compelling program this year as well. If it doesn't exhibit quite the diversity in range of approach that we usually saw under Uyehara's guidance, it does a better job at putting the "I" in "SFIFF" than Sean's programs did, or than perhaps any other section of this year's program, period. (runner-up: Cameraperson). Every film in the program takes us to at least one corner of the globe underrepresented on US screens of all sort: we see images of Morocco, South Africa, Turkey, and Lebanon. Syria, Bangladesh, the Netherlands and more factor in as well. In a way Many Thousands Gone is the odd one out, with its time divided between Brazil and New York, but making a connection that has implications for a more universal African diaspora.

HOW: The entire New Visions shorts program screens as DCP.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Today's the last chance to see French-Canadian documentarian Philippe Lesage's narrative debut The Demons, at 3PM at the Roxie, or L.A. Rebellion alumnus Billy Woodberry's new doc about San Francisco Beat poet Bob Kaufman, And when I die, I won't stay dead 6:30PM at BAMPFA. It's also the next-to-last screening of Hong Sangsoo's Right Now, Wrong Then, 9:30 PM at the New Mission.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: A 35mm print of Mikio Naruse's 1960 masterpiece When a Woman Ascends the Stairs shows along with a lecture at 3:10 PM at BAMPFA today.