Monday, February 20, 2017

10HTE: Brian Darr

If you've read the seventeen other contributions to by tenth annual I Only Have Two Eyes project attempting to chronicle a hefty portion of the San Francisco Bay Area's best repertory and revival venues and screenings then you know the scene is still robust even as it constantly shifts, opening up new venues as others shutter or pull back. Now it's time for me to (finally) unveil my own top choices from my 2016 filmgoing as experienced from my seat in the audience among friends and strangers.
As usual, I'm essentially limiting my choices to films I'd never seen before at all, as I particularly value the ability I have in the Bay Area to let my first viewings of great films come in the kinds of environments they were intended for in the first place. It was nearly a half-century ago that Jean-Luc Godard said to Gene Youngblood, "I would never see a good movie for the first time on television." I don't strictly hold to this doctrine but I find my home viewings increasingly compromised and theatrical viewings increasingly precious in this distraction-driven era. I could create a shadow list of viewings of films I'd previously seen on television or in an otherwise-unideal circumstance, which came more alive through a 2016 cinema viewing. (Here's a try: Dumbo at the Paramount, In a Lonely Place at Noir City, I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang at the Castro, In the Street at the Crossroads festival, When A Woman Ascends the Stairs at BAMPFA, How To Survive A Plague at YBCA, The Grand Budapest Hotel at the Roxie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me at BAMPFA, Early Spring at BAMPFA, and Halloween at the New Mission.) But without further ado, here are the ten I'm "officially" picking as my 2016 I Only Have Two Eyes selections. Thanks to all my other contributors, to all you readers, and of course to the venues and the filmmakers, dead or alive, whose work made 2016 another grand one for my continuing cinematic self-education and enjoyment.
Heaven's Gate screen capture from Criterion DVD
Heaven's Gate, February 28, 2016

Though I'll definitely be watching the Oscar telecast this year (with reservations) in the hopes that I get to see my old blog-buddy Barry Jenkins accept (or at the minimum, see some of his Moonlight collaborators accept) an award or two, even with the temptation of seeing a newly-more-relevant cinematic titan, and one of the films that inspired it, on the Castro screen, last year I skipped the show without the tiniest shred of compunction in order to catch an extremely epic double-feature in the aforementioned cinema. San Francisco's grandest screen was the ideal place to finally view Michael Cimino's notorious film maudit, which I'm not so surprised to report is now my favorite of his films made up to that point: his 1980 Heaven's Gate. (I haven't delved into Year of the Dragon through Sunchaser but was less-than-thrilled by his swan-song segment of To Each His Own Cinema). It's a sprawling, misshapen masterpiece full of wisdom and folly and a wagon-load of scenes I will absolutely never forget even if I never watch it again- which I certainly will, especially if a 35mm print of this 219-minute cut shows up somewhere again, as it surprisingly did for this Vilmos Zsigmond-tribute showing paired with the also exceptional America America which provided the Haskell Wexler half of the pairing in honor of two great, now-deceased cinematographers. That Cimino joined those two in the pantheon of departed masters only a few months later and that a President was elected who would certainly hate the pro-immigrant themes of these two films soon after that, makes the showing feel all the more special nearly a year later.

Foreign Correspondent, March 20, 2016

I made it back home from a weekend trip to Alfred Hitchcock's Sonoma County stomping grounds just in time to race to Palo Alto's Stanford Theatre for the final screening of his second Hollywood film, which is my second-to-last of his Hollywood films to view (I still haven't seen Topaz). Perhaps a decade or so ago I made a vow never again to watch a Hitchcock film for the first time on home video, and I've broken it only once since (for his silent Champagne, which I missed at the Castro in 2013 to catch a Stanford showing of The Ten Commandments). I'm glad I didn't and waited for this formative, pure entertainment whose 1940 thrills still feel so visceral on a big screen. I only wish I had been able to make it to the same venue in the fall when it showed the ever-rarer Waltzes From Vienna, which marks the end of the string of his British films (beginning with Juno and the Paycock) which, along with the much-later Jamaica Inn, I haven't been able to catch in a cinema yet and thus remain gaps in my Hitchcography. At least I saw several other excellent films from the Stanford's Vienna-themed series (including Spring Parade and Liebelei) and other great 2016 screenings (Hold Back the Dawn, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, A Midsummer Night's Dream) at my hands-down favorite south-of-San Francisco screening venue.

Black Sunday screen capture from Anchor Bay DVD
Black Sunday, April 7, 2016

A 2002 Yerba Buena Center For the Arts retrospective is where I first became acquainted with the visionary, technically audacious cinema of Italian master Mario Bava, whose films like Kill Baby Kill, Five Dolls For an August Moon and Twitch of the Death Nerve make him my personal favorite international horror director from the period between Jacques Tourneur's and David Cronenberg's peaks in that genre. But I couldn't see everything in that 15-year-old retro, so I'd never before seen his very first feature film as an uncredited writer and a credited director. It's appropriate that I return to the scene of the crime (YBCA) to finally view this eerie and intense 1960 film, which not only made a star out of Barbara Steele but also allowed Bava to emerge with a fully-formed style (honed by years as a cinematographer). YBCA's all-35mm Gothic Cinema series was an overall 2016 highlight, also allowing me a chance to finally see wonderfully spooky films like James Whale's The Old Dark House and Jack Clayton's The Innocents for the first time.

Quixote, May 22, 2016

Bruce Baillie is well-known as the founder of Canyon Cinema. He's also one of my very favorite living filmmakers and I'm so glad I had a chance to finally see two of his major works on 16mm for the first time in 2016. Though it was wonderful to see him down from Washington State introducing a screening of his first film On Sundays at New Nothing Cinema in September, an Artists' Television Access showing of his 1965 Quixote was even more precious. It was introduced by a more recent (though not current) Canyon executive director, Denah Johnston, who also showed a lovely film of her own called Sunflowers as well as the great Study of a River by then-gravely-ill master Peter Hutton, as examples of work inspired by Baillie's unique way of seeing. Quixote turns out to be truly monumental work of the proto-hippie counterculture, on the order of Baillie's post-hippie Quick Billy if not ever greater. Shot all over the American West and edited with the aplomb of the most skillful of the Soviet masters, it's Baillie's grand, righteous, sorrowfully patriotic/anti-patriotic statement all in one. Other 2016 repertory highlights in an experimental vein included 16mm showings of Thad Povey's Scratch Film Junkies' Saint Louise and Gunvor Nelson's Take Off at SOMArts (the latter also introduced by Johnston, the former by Craig Baldwin) and of Scott Stark's Angel Beach, Paul Clipson's Another Void and Rosario Sotelo's Flor Serpiente among other works at A.T.A.; both of these evenings were organized in conjunction with an undersung SOMArts exhibit called Timeless Motion that I had a very small hand in assisting in the installation of. I also loved seeing Ron Rice's The Flower Thief and Pat O'Neill introducing his Water & Power at BAMPFA, Caryn Cline showing Lucy's Terrace and her other films at the Exploratorium, Toney Merritt showing EF and many of his other films and Lynn Marie Kirby showing Stephanie Beroes's Recital at New Nothing, and Ishu Patel's Perspectrum and James Whitney's Lapis among others presented by Ben Ridgeway at Oddball (whose weekly screenings have sadly been put on hiatus). It was another good year in this regard.

Gate of Flesh screen capture from Criterion DVD
Gate of Flesh, May 28, 2016

I like the latest iteration of the Pacific Film Archive, now rebranded as BAMPFA, in its newly-built structure just a block or so from the Downtown Berkeley BART station. I don't love it yet, though, because it can't compete with fifteen years of memories made at the old corrugated-metal building further up the hill. It doesn't help that my approach to cinema-going doesn't seem to mesh quite as well with some of the patterns being established at the new venue; earlier showtimes, a reintroduction of the canon, more DCPs (the latter two may be related), etc. And I'm not quite used to the fact that though there are more seats, there also seem to be more sold-out shows; more than once I've arrived at the venue only to be turned away for lack of space, something that hadn't happened to me, no matter how spontaneous my arrival had been, in about a decade before 2016. But BAMPFA still allowed me to see some wonderful 35mm prints of films I'd never watched before, including several Maurice Pialat films, John Ford's The Long Voyage Home, Nick Ray's The Lusty Men, and a decent sampling of the Anna Magnani series that played in the fall. But my year's happiest personal discovery there was certainly that of Seijun Suzuki's 1964 Gate of Flesh, first released when he was a mere 41 (he's now 93 and counting!) It's a maximalist melodrama set in the world of makeshift brothels of post-war Tokyo at it's bombedest-out, filled with tremendous color and energy and some of the most inventive double-exposures made since the silent era.

Anguish, August 9, 2016

When I first heard in April 2012 that the Alamo Drafthouse was going to be renovating the long-shuttered New Mission Theatre I was living just a few blocks away, and was excited but skeptical that I'd still be living there by the time it arrived. Sure enough, I was evicted and moved across town within two years and the venue didn't open for nearly another two. But I've still found the allure of another repertory venue filling some of the long-standing genre gaps in the Frisco Bay screening ecosystem too strong to resist. Alamo's New Mission has something of a reputation for catering to the gentrifying crowd epitomized by the condos next door whose construction were part of the deal to revive the old "Miracle Mile" movie house, and if you look at the prices of their normal tickets and food-and-drink menu items, it's hard to shake that perception. But the theatre's regular late-weeknight, usually-35mm screenings of our grindhouse cinematic heritage for only $6 a seat makes it a godsend for budget-minded cinephiles. The most successful series seems to be Terror Tuesdays, and though it tends to focus pretty strictly on films from the 1970s, 80s and 90s, I can't deny that's a pretty good time period to focus on when it comes to horror movies. Catalan filmmaker Bigas Luna's jaw-dropping 1987 Anguish fits right into that frame, and I'm SO glad I saw it for the first time in a theatre full of other movie lovers who, like me, didn't seem to know what was hitting them. I don't want to spoil a moment of this unique film experience, but I will say that Alamo programmer Mike Keegan (formerly of the Roxie) gave a pitch-perfect introduction that gave us a sense of the intensity of experience we were in for without tipping Bigas's hand in any way. If I could only pick one viewing experience to highlight on this list instead of ten, Anguish would be very much in the running. I've also enjoyed the Alamo's Weird Wednesday programming (especially Walter Hill's Southern Comfort) and, before the admission price more than doubled from $6 to $14, the Music Monday events (especially Donald Cammell's & Nicolas Roeg's Performance).

Manhunter screen capture from MGM DVD
Manhunter, September 3, 2016

I must admit that of all the active filmmakers I see many of my cinephile friends and admireds discussing with passion, Michael Mann is the one that I have traditionally had the most resistance to joining the cult of. Perhaps I've just seen the wrong films (The Keep must be for the advanced Mann-ophile). His 1986 Manhunter, on the other hand, is most definitely the right film. It revels in an eighties-era dread very different from (and to me, more appealing than) the 1990s guignol of Silence of the Lambs, which it technically precurses even if its shared characters are played by different actors, and does a better job at interrogating the wobbly line between society's desecrators and its guardians than any serial-killer movie I can think of. This was screened as part of Jesse Hawthorne Ficks's MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS series, which by the end of 2016 appeared to have departed from the Castro as its primary home for over ten years (after a healthy early-2000s stretch at the 4-Star) and taking up residency at the Roxie (where Manhunter screened) while occasionally venturing into the Exploratorium or the New Mission. The houses are more reliably packed and the films chosen more frequently diverge from my own personal perception of "dismissed, underrated and forgotten films" (this weekend is a tribute to Hayao Miyazaki, whom I love but whom I have a hard time imagining with those labels), but as Ficks has direct contact with a new generation of moving-image-obsessives in his position as a film history teacher at a local school, I'm willing to defer to his definitions. Especially when it means 35mm prints of great films get shown in nearby cinemas.

Viridana, October 14, 2016

What cinema fan doesn't love Luis Buñuel? Finally getting a chance to see his 1961 excoriating re-entry into filming in his homeland after 29 years, in a beautiful 35mm print, would be a highlight of any year. It's a tremendous, unforgettable film, perhaps Buñuel's most Buñuelian, tackling all his usual themes of hypocrisy, sexual obsession, class conflict, etc. with maximum fervor. As much as I love his Mexican and French filmmaking periods, there is something about his few Spanish films that sets them apart. The screening was held at SFMOMA on the second weekend of its first Modern Cinema series devoted to the Criterion Collection and to Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (its current series is Werner Herzog and Ecstatic Truth and its next series, in June, celebrates 100 years of Jean-Pierre Melville by grouping his films with those of one of his most ardent director acolytes Johnny To). After sampling the venue with Viridiana I was able to re-watch great films by Victor Erice, Hiroshi Teshigahara, and Apichatpong, who was on hand wearing a Canyon Cinema T-Shirt for certain showings. This series marked the relaunching of SFMOMA's film programming after over three years of expansion and refurbishment; the Wattis Theatre got a mild make-over in comparison to much of the rest of the building, a missed opportunity to provide more legroom between rows compounded by a new problem of noise from stairwalking museumgoers infiltrating the theatre space during museum-hours screenings of quiet films. Luckily Viridiana screened after hours, a new capability of the space now that it has a separate public entrance from the expensive-to-insure galleries, and I found one of the better seats in the house to view it from.  Despite its minor problems, I'm glad to have a key piece of Frisco Bay repertory reinstated after such a long absence.

So This Is Paris screen capture from youtube
So This Is Paris, December 3, 2016

Since instating an annual one-day Winter Event (or sometimes Fall Event) at the Castro Theatre as a supplement to its Summer (now moved to late Spring) multi-day festival more than ten years ago, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has gradually moved more and more to showing most of the latest restorations and rarely-seen archival gems in the summer while using the opposite end of the calendar to bring out well-known warhorses like The Thief of Bagdad or The General or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It's like a little favor to the many out-of-towners who attend the multi-day festival that they tend to shy away from showing too many films at the one-day event that they'll really regret missing. In 2016, however, their December Day of Silents may have been even more enticing to certain silent film fans than the June festival; it was to me. Although the latter let me see terrific unknown films like Behind the Door and a program of (minimum) 110-year-old hand-colored European films as well as re-viewing great work by Ozu, Wellman, Clair, Flaherty, etc, the Day of Silents seemed to be programmed right to my fondest viewing desires: a rare chance to see longtime favorites like Eisenstein's Strike and Von Sternberg's The Last Command on the big screen for the first time, a chance to see Raoul Walsh's wonderful (if sadly incomplete) Sadie Thompson for the first time ever, and more, nearly all of it (excepting an early-matinee Chaplin shorts set) in 35mm prints. The highest highlight, however, was seeing the last and probably the best of Ernst Lubitsch's Warner Brothers silents, So This Is Paris from 1926, with a tremendous piano accompaniment from Donald Sosin. Everyone talks about this film's bravura Charleston dance sequence, justifiably, but the rest of the film is also a supreme delight, spoofing the then-in-vogue romantic sheik figure, engineering a perfectly-interlocking love quadrangle based on the same material as the famous Strauss operetta Die Fledermaus, and suffusing the proceedings with a biting gallows humor. It immediately shoots to the top tier of American silent films most shamefully lacking an official DVD release, alongside Lubitsch's next great film The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (which I'm not sure how to explain the absence of on my very first I Only Have Two Eyes list from when I saw it at SFSFF in 2007).

I Gopher You, December 10, 2016

The Roxie Theater has really improved its repertory-screening game in my eyes over the past year or so, at least in my eyes. Perhaps it's a competitive response to the appearance of the Alamo Drafthouse a few blocks away. Perhaps it's a function of getting the right personnel in place on its staff and its non-profit board. Perhaps it's connected to the November 2015 passage of the Legacy Business Preservation Fund creation, which the Roxie was able to benefit from starting in August 2016. Perhaps all these factors and more contribute. But though the oldest (first opened in 1909) essentially-continuously-operating movie house in San Francisco, if not a much wider geographic area (it's contested), still has challenges to face, it's facing them not only by using creative tools like their current silent auction and upcoming off-site fundraiser, but also by reasserting itself as an essential piece of the Frisco Bay exhibition quilt through its screenings, more of which involved celluloid in 2016 than had been the case in quite a few years. I personally partook in great events like a September Sam Fuller series, a lovely Les Blank program in March, some of the previously-mentioned MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS showings like Manhunter, and more. None were more purely fun than the two all-35mm programs of Warner Brothers animation brought through the Roxie's monthly Popcorn For Breakfast Saturday morning cartoon showcase enthusiastically and knowledgeably hosted by Amanda Peterson. June's set of selections leaned heavily on the great Chuck Jones, and let me view 35mm prints of classics I'd only seen on TV before like Robin Hood Daffy and There They Go-Go-Go; that it was held twenty-four hours before a Castro Jones tribute made for a deeply-immersive weekend for fans of Termite Terrace's most celebrated director. But the Roxie's December dozen, while not ignoring Jones, gave greater attention to his 1950s studio-mates, particularly Robert McKimson. And the program began with a cartoon by my personal favorite of Jones's under-appreciated co-workers, Friz Freleng, which I'm 99% sure I never saw as a kid and 100% sure I hadn't seen as an adult, much less in a great 35mm print. Freleng's 1954 I Gopher You is the fifth cartoon featuring the hilariously over-polite Goofy Gophers voiced by Mel Blanc and Stan Freburg, and the first in which their nemesis is not an antagonistic pooch but the industrial agricultural system itself. "Mac" and "Tosh" find their farmland food supply raided by the mechanisms of post-World War II production, tracing a truck full of freshly-picked vegetables back to the Ajax processing plant. The mazes of conveyor belts and relentless canning contraptions makes for the ideal playground for Freleng's signature "anticipation gags" in which hearty humor derives from the expectation of the fulfillment of a pattern of violence and/or humiliation against a character. Much like the gophers themselves, this well-oiled machine of a film is seemingly small (at only 7 minutes), but packs a formidable wallop. It's available as a bonus on the Warner DVD of His Majesty O'Keefe, which you can rent at Lost Weekend Video.

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