Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Brian Darr: IOHTE

Screen capture from Columbia DVD
Thanks for reading the 2015 edition of I Only Have Two Eyes, my annual survey of Frisco Bay cinephiles' favorite cinematic revivals seen in local cinematheques, arthouses, museum screening rooms, movie palaces and other public spaces between January 1 and December 31, 2015. The hub page for this year's results will point you to the selections and, in many cases, eloquent write-ups, by sixteen esteemed allies in appreciation of the screen, the programmers, and of course the films that could be seen in Frisco Bay venues last year. Though not all by one person, as the name of the survey should suggest.

I compile a survey that eschews new releases in favor of focusing on our cinematic heritage not because I don't have interest in new films (you can see some of my own favorites listed here), but because I feel there are plenty of others covering that ground. And, perhaps as importantly, because I feel that the usual film rankings often obscure the circumstances under which they're viewed. So many variables play into how a viewer receives a film: method of delivery, reaction (or lack thereof) of fellow viewers, preconceptions before viewing, mood of viewer, among others competing with "quality of the film" in shaping a judgment. I know there are fastidious critics who take care to rewatch a film multiple times, often in multiple ways, before committing it to a top ten list, but though I admire the approach, it feels too much like a vain attempt to cram opinions into boxes made for facts for me to adopt it myself. Rather I prefer to present a year-in-review that emphasizes the unique nature of every viewing of a film. In-cinema screenings of older films are easier for most of us to think of as unique, I feel (in part because they very often are!)

Screen capture from Criterion DVD
I suspect the timing and placement of my first-ever viewing of The Honeymoon Killers couldn't have been better for appreciation of this exceedingly disturbing 1969 portrait of the murderous Ray Fernandez and Martha Beck. It was the final film shown at the January 2015 edition of Eddie Muller's Noir City film festival, pushing an audience who'd just taken in a week full of mysteries, thrillers and melodramas made in the classical Hollywood style (square frame, presentational acting style, continuity cutting, the works) out into the world on a completely different note. It's the only film written and directed by opera composer Leonard Kastle, with a few scenes filmed by a very young Martin Scorsese until the producers determined his methods ate up too much of the film's quick schedule and extremely low budget. Kastle created a raw and unflinching window into a notoriously lethal marriage, filmed mostly in long takes, in cars and in non-descript dwellings, giving the feeling of a nightmarish home movie exploding in widescreen on the the Castro screen. I felt shell-shocked after the screening and felt like I wouldn't want to watch another noir again for at least another year (although this wore off eventually, certainly in time for me to see the majority of screenings in the Castro's summer noir series hosted by Elliot Lavine.)

2015 was the last year, or should I say half-year, of the Pacific Film Archive's existence at its 16-year "temporary" location at 2575 Bancroft, across from a lovely Julia Morgan- & Bernard Maybeck-designed gymnasium. I witnessed so many outstanding screenings inside this corrugated shed, and though the new location holds great promise, I'm sure I'll miss the cozy purple-cushioned seats and the walks from the BART station through the forested campus quite a bit, if not as much as I'll miss some of the staff that was not invited to make the hyperspace jump to the new screening space when it opened this past week. Luckily I took great advantage of the old space during its final few months, sampling great retrospectives for filmmakers like Billy Wilder, Gregory Markopoulos, John Stahl, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Victor Erice. But I think my favorite PFA screening of 2015 was a mystical film completely unknown to me before viewing it in February: The Day is Longer Than the Night, with the director Lana Gogoberidze on hand to discuss her poetic, pictoral approach to national narrative (my tweet at the time), in a nation that didn't exist independent of the Soviet Union at the time she made it, and the fallout from its success at a crucial moment in Soviet film history. I wish I'd been able to take in a lot more of the PFA's monumental survey of Georgian film during late 2014 and early 2015, but I'm sure glad I at least caught this precious work.

Screen capture from Lionsgate DVD
There's no getting around it: now that I no longer live three blocks from the Roxie Theatre (since moving to Grant Avenue almost two years ago) I don't find myself there nearly as often as I used to. It may just be an optical illusion that has me thinking there's not quite as many can't-miss screenings happening there since I moved away- at least for a film-on-film proponent (though not purist). I did get to see perfectly-projected 35mm prints of Brandy In the Wilderness, Takeshi Miike's Audition, and a set of Quay Brothers shorts there in 2015, and am glad that Polyester screens in 35mm AND Odorama tonight (though I'll be helping present The Fall of The I-Hotel at the nearby Artists' Television Access instead). But my favorite recent-ish screening there has definitely been last March's showing of Kathryn Bigelow's solo directorial debut Near Dark, a post-punk vampire variant set in rural American states where, (as I tweeted after the screening) "blood flows as cheaply as beer & gasoline". I think it's my new favorite Bigelow film. The screening was presented by the Film On Film Foundation, which paired the film with the schlocky Stephanie Rothman grindhouser Terminal Island, but my mind really connects it with a more closely-kindred film seen at the Castro a month and a half before: Abel Ferrara's 1993 Body Snatchers remake.

More than fourteen years ago, after I saw my first Budd Boetticher Westerns midway through a Pacific Film Archive series, I started to visually devour as many as I could get my eyes on, whether via VHS tapes or Turner Classc Movies airings (at my neighbor's house, since I've never subscribed to that channel myself). But for some reason I'd always held that series opener The Tall T (pictured at the top of this post) at arm's length, in the hopes of another theatrical opportunity arising. Meanwhile, the movie was released on DVD, and then went out of print, and then back in again (this time only as an on-demand DVD-R), with no such screenings appearing in this cowboy-hat-averse region until this past April when the intrepid Yerba Buena Center for the Arts finally booked it as part of a very fine Western series (couched as "Noir Westerns" to help lure in horse opera skeptics). It proved itself to be the most formally and narratively "perfect" of Boetticher's Ranown films made with unassuming star Randolph Scott. A case in which my patience really paid off in a tremendous first-time viewing.

Screen capture from Parlour DVD
"If you don’t want anything, you won’t have anything, and if you don’t have anything, you’re nothing. You might as well be dead. You're not even a citizen of the United States." The greatest film I saw at the San Francisco International Film Festival this past Spring was a 45-year-old revival of the sole feature film directed by its star, who also wrote the screenplay and won an award at the Venice Film Festival back in 1970. There's not much new I can say about Barbara Loden's Wanda in a world where Bérénice Reynaud's essential Senses of Cinema article on the film exists, but I will add that Rachel Kushner's introduction to the Castro Theatre congregation not only quoted a passage from her novel The Flamethrowers that discussed the film, and gave shout-outs to Frisco's fallen repertory houses (the York, the Strand, the Red Vic), but debunked one notion in Reynaud's article: that Wanda never screened in the United States beyond an initial New York run. The SFIFF catalog refers to at least 1970 screening in San Francisco, and Kushner spoke eloquently of how her mother saw the film in an Oregon arthouse and always maintained it was the best film ever made. Watching with those words ringing in my ears, it was hard to disagree, at least for the 102 minutes it played, which is the most I can ever ask of a film anyway.

This past May's San Francisco Silent Film Festival was filled with gems, and I didn't even have time to see all of them, I'm sure. Most of my festival favorites (Ben-Hur, the Swallow and the Titmouse, the Bert Williams presentation) have been mentioned by other IOHTE contributors this year, but since nobody else mentioned another silent film event that happened earlier that month and opened my eyes equally wide to the place of pre-talkie cinema history in modern life, I'm going to use this slot to give it some attention. It's an experimental silent film called The Big Stick/An Old Reel by Massachusetts filmmaker Saul Levine, who made a rare Frisco Bay public appearance courtesy of an SF Cinematheque co-presentation at Oakland's more underground Black Hole Cinematheque, an admission-always-free screening space that will celebrate its fifth year of operation later in 2016. The Big Stick/An Old Reel is quite simply one of the most effective "found footage" films I've ever witnessed, and a 10-minute manifesto of how "old" films don't survive simply to be seen, but to be applied to our lives. Between 1967 and 1973 (it took him six years to perfect), Levine expressed this by splicing together footage of police trying to quell a mass protest, shot with his regular-8mm camera off a television broadcast, with fragments from 8mm reduction prints of pertinent Charlie Chaplin comedies. Namely 1914's Getting Acquainted, in which the Little proto-Tramp evades Edgar Kennedy's Keystone Cop as he interacts with Mabel Normand, Mack Swain, Phyllis Allen Cecile Arnold and Harry McCoy (strangely, much of the literature identifies this film as In The Park, which Chaplin filmed in San Francisco with an entirely different cast for Essanay in 1915), and 1917's Easy Street, in which Chaplin himself plays the cop- and a pretty outrageously abusive one. As if juxtaposing these three sources together didn't create an intense enough layering, Levine creates even more with additional interventions such as blackening parts of the image and varying the rhythm of the cuts. Indeed the very nature of 8mm splices, which leave a highly noticeable scarring on the frame (perhaps exacerbated when blown up to 16mm, as I believe the print I saw was?) creates more texture in an already-dense film. And context adds yet another level of layering. Watching cycles of violence so embedded into a film print in 2015 Oakland of all times and places felt like a particularly apropos summoning.

Screen capture from Universal Vault DVD
Last year the Stanford Theatre provided opportunities to watch all of the feature-length talking pictures Ernst Lubitsch directed up through 1939, and I took advantage of the opportunity to see the two from this period that had eluded me up to now: The Man I Killed, his sole pure drama during this period, and which is also known as Broken Lullaby, and the film I now think might be the summation of his powers, the 1937 Marlene Dietrich/Herbert Marshall/Melvyn Douglas love triangle Angel (which could also bear the title Broken Lullaby, as I noted in a post-viewing tweet). It was released after the longest period of apparent inactivity in Lubitsch's career as a director, which I can't help but notice coincides with the period of strict enforcement of the Hays Code (the precise date was July 1, 1934, two weeks before the end of principle photography on Lubitsch's prior directorial effort The Merry Widow). It's as if he needed a period of time to regroup and rethink how to extend his "Touch" into a more censorious Hollywood environment. He found some marvelous solutions, creating a masterpiece that walks a fine line between marital drama and aching comedy that somehow befits the strange combination of satisfaction and melancholy I feel at the thought that I'll never again see a 1930s Lubitsch feature for the first time. At least there are still a couple from the 1940s and a slew from the 1910s and 1920s I can look forward to making the acquaintance of...

The Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco presented its third annual tribute to a filmmaker from "the beautiful country"; after Pasolini in 2013 and Bertolucci in 2014 this year's maestro was Vittorio De Sica, still world famous of course for Bicycle Thieves, but whose lesser-known works like Shoeshine and Miracle in Milan are more beloved to me personally. The second Castro screening that September day was another for me to add to that list: Gold of Naples, a wise and witty portmanteau film made on the streets of De Sica's hometown, featuring six (approximately-) equally-wonderful Giuseppe Marotta short story adaptations. Sofia Loren plays a philandering wife with a misplaced wedding ring. Silvia Mangano a prostitute who takes revenge on a self-loathing nobleman. De Sica himself plays an inveterate gambler (a role that his friends considered his most autobiographical) and Totò (another Neapolitan) a put-upon clown. Other segments portray a neighborhood problem-solver and a haunting funeral procession for a dead child. Each vignette could stand on its own as a top-notch short film; together they conspire to create a filmic work worthy of standing with Rossellini's Paisan and Pasolini's Trilogy of Life films as proof that Italians have understood the power of portmanteau better than anyone.

Screen capture from Mileston/Oscilloscope DVD
I knew I'd be filling a major gap in my understanding of documentary history when I went to a 35mm showing of Marcel Ophuls' The Sorrow and the Pity at the Rafael Film Center. I didn't realize, however, just how much I'd learn from, be moved by, and even, dare I say, entertained by, this 1969 epic (over four hours, not including intermission) of cultural history and its intersection with "harder" political history. Ophuls, in San Rafael to receive a Mill Valley Film Festival tribute and to introduce a newer film as well as this one, sat and watched this one along with the audience, as if he hadn't already viewed it countless times before. Here he tears apart the myths associated with resistance in Nazi-occupied France, not as a radical but as a sly provocateur, using techniques that have since becomes hallmarks of successful documentary: the incorporation of disturbing "ephemeral" film footage (years before The Atomic Cafe solidified an American vogue for such), and of "enough rope to hang themselves" interviews like that of a merchant asked to explain why he took out an a newspaper ad proclaiming himself "100% French". Few of the interviews were as self-incriminating as this one, but they all wove together a damning self-portrait of a nation still unreconciled with its past. I'll never watch a Maurice Chevalier film in quite the same way again.

Finally, another French film that might never have been made without the unwitting participation of Nazi Germany: Fritz Lang's only film completed during his brief stay in Paris after fleeing Hitler's Germany (in style), albeit less abruptly than he'd maintain in later interviews. The film was Liliom, a 1934 adaptation of the same Ferenc Molnar play that Frank Borzage had made with Charles Farrell in 1930. The Stanford Theatre screened both back-to-back as part of a rapturous 100-year anniversary  tribute to the Fox Film Corporation, providing opportunities for me to rewatch rarely-revived personal favorites like the Borzage Liliom and Henry King's State Fair, and to see great works like John Ford's Steamboat Round the Bend for the first time. But none I'm as glad I made sure to trek to Palo Alto for as Lang's Liliom, which emphasizes the fatalistic elements of Molnar's play while presenting a "poetic realist" setting for its events to unfold in. Charles Boyer is particularly wonderful here as the title character, effectively differentiating his performance between different phases of life in a way that Farrell didn't even attempt. And the scene in which he watches his life unfold via a film projection is one of Lang's most inspired ever. Apart from a few late-career Satyajit Ray films co-produced by Soprofilms or Canal+, this is the first French film (made under the Erich Pommer-led Fox Europa) that I can recall the Stanford screening in the decade-and-a-half I've been paying attention to the venue's programming. I'd certainly be happy to see more.

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