Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Station Agent (2003)

A scene from Tom McCarthy's THE STATION AGENT, playing at the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 21 - May 5, 2016. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society
WHO: Tom McCarthy wrote and directed this film, his first feature before going on to make The Visitor and the most recent Oscar Best Picture, Spotlight. Although my own favorite film on which he's credited as one of the writers is the Pixar hit Up.

WHAT: The Station Agent is such an archetypal Sundance Film Festival success: a low-key dramedy featuring quirky, socially marginal characters interacting awkwardly in an off-the-beaten-track environment captured beautifully, if rather straightforwardly, in a long-shot-heavy camera style. Given all that, and the fact that the film doesn't try very hard to avoid or subvert cliches, it's a far better film than it has any right to be. I think this is thanks to the performances, especially those of the three lead actors. There's Peter Dinklage (not a star yet as this was pre-Game of Thrones and even pre-Elf), who plays the titular character, a railroad buff who moves to a forgotten corner of New Jersey but has no burning desire to make friends with people in a community he feels certain is laughing at him behind has back- or worse. There's Patricia Clarkson, who plays a painter who has trouble focusing in the wake of a family tragedy. And finally Bobby Cannavale, who played the Jersey-est San Francisco mechanic ever in Blue Jasmine, but seems right at home here as a Cuban-American hot dog vendor eager to make friends with the other two. It's appropriate that the finickiest film awards body I know of, the Skandies, picked all three actors among its top 20 performances of 2003 (in their respective categories) even when they left the film off lists for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay.

WHERE/WHEN: Tonight only at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive at 7PM following an on-stage conversation with McCarthy, presented by the San Francisco International Film Festival.

WHY: If you're a big fan of The Station Agent then seeing it with a BAMPFA audience in 35mm with the director present is probably a dream come true. If you're a skeptic, or have never seen it before at all, it might be just the thing to win you over. Watching it on DVD on one's own may be the sort of solitary experience that mirrors the tone of the film, but gathering with an audience to view it on a big screen is certain to bring out some of the comedy that may be too understated for full impact in a home-viewing scenario.

BAMPFA, with its respectful, knowledgeable audiences and its almost-always flawless projection, has built a reputation as the best possible place to see a film, and it's no wonder that so many filmmakers, scholars and other luminaries are eager to present films there (the venue's SFIFF guest list is online here). I understand that it was chosen as venue for tonight's screening because McCarthy wanted to screen a 35mm print, and that it was seen as the best SFIFF venue to project one. Indeed, when I went to my first SFIFF screening at the new space, the Experimental Shorts program on Sunday, all the formats shown- 35mm, 16mm and various digital forms, looked stunning.

While there I picked up a copy of the May-June BAMPFA schedule, which is also available as an online pdf, and began making post-SFIFF plans for future visitations. A myriad of special guests will appear at various screenings there over the next few months. Now-retired BAMPFA curator Steve Seid will provide opening remarks to a Roberto Gavaldón film Night Falls May 28th, as part of a 8-title Mexican Film Noir series in which I've seen only one from the program, Gavaldón's positively psychotronic In the Palm of Your Hand. Julio Bracho's Twilight and Tito Davison's May God Forgive Me will screen from 35mm prints with electronic subtitles; the rest will be shown via new DCPs. Japanese cinema scholar will be there to discuss three features by living legend of the yakuza film Seijun Suzuki; two (Kanto Wanderer in 35mm and Tokyo Drifter as DCP) are part of the dozen entries in the largest Frisco Bay Suzuki retrospective since the 1990s, while the third (Branded To Kill) screens as the close of the current Wednesday afternoon In Focus: Japanese Film Classics lecture/screening series, although it appears again in the retro (as the only non-35mm title other than Tokyo Drifter- don't be fooled by the words "imported print" on the website) sans Vick, May 27th.

Walter Murch, Jonathan Lethem, Carroll Ballard, David Peoples, Barry Gifford, Philip Kaufman, and Dana Spiotta are just a few of the notables appearing at the June 1-5 Auteur, Author Film & Literature series held at BAMPFA in collaboration with the Bay Area Book Festival. Two more festivals (albeit not nearly so chronologically concentrated ones) include the long-awaited return of the touring UCLA Festival of Preservation, featuring new 35mm prints of under-screened American classics from the 1910s to the 1960s (as well as a new DCP of a 1909 Mary Pickford vehicle, accompanied by Judith Rosenberg on piano as part of an all-Pickford program), and the new Early Music Film Festival, in which 35mm prints of films by Gérard Corbiau, Alain Corneau, and Straub/Huillet brush up against other "baroque and before"-themed music-pictures such as Agnes Méth's documentation of Dorris Dörrie's staging of Handel's Admeto, which will be introduced by conductor Nicholas McGegin.

I think that's all the guests expected at BAMPFA in the coming months, excepting the as-yet unspecified student filmmakers who'll be on hand for the annual Film and Video Makers at Cal: Works from the Eisner Prize Competition screening the day after SFIFF ends. (Having heard Summer Mason speak about an earlier work and experiences at Cal at a New Parkway screening last month, I'm rooting for her to be on hand with her new work.) The venue's able curatorial staff will be on their own to introduce other screenings on the upcoming calendar including the 35mm screening of To Kill a Mockingbird (commemorating Harper Lee's recent passing, or Gregory Peck's centennial earlier this month, or both?), the selections in the (all-digital) Wim Wenders retrospective, and the 2 showings of a new 35mm print of the Nicholas Ray film I'm most embarrassed not to have seen by this point in my cinephilia, The Lusty Men.

HOW: 35mm print, as noted above.

OTHER SFIFF SCREENINGS: Today is the final festival screening of Michel Gondry's Microbe and Gasoline, and the second screening of The Apostate.

NON-SFIFF SCREENING: Since I'm on the topic of film-on-film showings, I'll highlight the Tech Museum of San Jose, the last remaining Frisco Bay IMAX screen that still uses 15-perf 70mm film reels. Today (and for the rest of the week, at least) the venue screens Batman Vs. Superman, which I can't recommend (because I haven't seen it). But I can recommend the Hackworth Dome screen as the most immersive I've experienced.

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