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.