Friday, February 10, 2017

10HTE: David Robson

The San Francisco Bay Area is still home to a rich cinephilic culture nurtured in large part by a diverse array of cinemas, programmers and moviegoers. I'm honored to present a selection of favorite screenings experienced by local cinephiles in 2016. An index of participants can be found here.

Five-time IOHTE contributor David Robson is the Film/Video Curatorial Assistant at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. He almost never documents his movie-viewing at his own blog the House of Sparrows, and he cohabitates with those adorable simian cinephiles at Monkeys Go To Movies.

Blow Up screen shot from Warner DVD 
I insist, likely to the point of tedium, that Noir City is at its best when it goes "not quite noir" or even "...wait a minute is this even noir?". Fedora'd purists be damned: expanding the scope of the series into other realms brings a noir perspective to familiar movies that, when it clicks, renders them new. Case in point: the series' final screening of Antonioni's Blow-Up, which played to a packed house that included many of the Noir City faithful, and the often rowdy NC crowd was taken into the movie's confidence, watching the climactic tennis match unfold in rapt silence. It felt like I was seeing this famous, much-debated scene for the first time, and I've never felt an Antonioni movie connect so powerfully with an audience.

About four times a year the San Francisco Symphony accompanies a film screening with its score performed live. And though neither the venue nor its audience seem to understand the differences between these events and regular film screenings it proved the ideal way to experience Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, giving Bernard Herrmann's score the primary focus. Hearing and seeing the score performed live proved that the story had the scope and depth of an opera, with Herrmann deploying Wagnerian motifs to dizzying ends. Kim Novak's act 3 confession played like an aria in this context, proving my suspicion that a composer of a film (specifically this composer for this film) could be its most powerful auteur.

The conflict of interest prevents me from listing any of the offerings of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' film program, but I feel I can name a film that screened there prior to my return there: Joel Shepard's entire Gothic Cinema series (link here, please: Gothic Cinema: Darkness and Desire ) was a beautiful cross-section of shadowy horrors, fantasies, and romances, and among its many gems I got to see Jack Clayton's The Innocents for the first time. The gorgeous 35mm allowed it to shine within the context of the series, but even without the support of its fellow Gothics Jack Clayton's tale of a governess protecting her charges from unseen threats was and is clearly a superior picture. Crystalline photography by Freddie Francis, and even the 20th Century Fox logo is tastefully, powerfully deployed at movie's start.
The Matador image provided by contributor 
The 21st century closer of the Castro's Bond and Beyond series paired the lite entertainment of Die Another Day with Richard Shepard's spectacular black comedy The Matador. The latter features a post-Bond Pierce Brosnan in exceptionally sybaritic form as a strung-out hitman, with fine support from Greg Kinnear as a square businessman caught in his orbit and Hope Davis as Kinnear's wise, adoring spouse. It had been a dark horse favorite in 2005, and it was an absolute joy to experience again, its three lead characters returning like cherished friends, David Tattersall's photography capturing an eye-popping palette of colors. Lynn Cursaro pointed out that too rarely does rep cinema venture into the recent past, naming this movie as exactly the kind of hidden gem that are due another shot. Her hilarious posts about the movie in the days following the screening helped extend its spell.

Prince is Dead, Long Live Prince. And much, much gratitude to our friends at the Alamo Drafthouse for scoring the lovely print of Sign O' the Times. The revival of Purple Rain in the wake of Prince's departure was inevitable, but Sign appears to be Prince's greatest cinematic testament, showcasing its star's considerable talent and charisma (and more-than-adequate directing chops, as well) while giving his band plenty of space to stretch out in individual and group moments. The greatest wake of the year.

Speaking of the Drafthouse: Mike Keegan's seized the standard of late-nite grindhouse programming, but my favorite of the films I saw under that aegis was Robert Altman's little-seen and less-regarded OC & Stiggs. It's a bizarrely ramshackle 80s teen comedy that feels like it's going to self-destruct at any second, but the Beast is one of cinema's greatest cars, the King Sunny Ade concert is an incredibly cathartic set-piece, and the obnoxious title heroes are no moreso than any of Altman's other two-against-the-world double-acts. The final freeze-frame seals Altman's affection for them, and our own.

Suture image provided by contributor 
A pair of digital restorations seemed to be dancing across rep venues in tandem, and they both wound up at the Roxie the same week: Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace was presented with loving care, its digital makeover preserving Bava's gorgeously lurid color schemes and giving Carlo Rustichelli's score a nice boost. Its starkly duo-chrome dance partner, McGehee and Spiegel's Suture, showed none of its age, its Shinoda and Teshigahara-inspired staging rendered with stark clarity.

It's funny how ubiquitous a rarely-seen movie can get, but one doesn't complain. The Vienna series that began in Berkeley at Pacific Film Archive, then went south-west to the Stanford, gave us multiple looks at Powell & Pressburger's Oh Rosalinda!! (And PFA's Powell & Pressburger retro in December gave it yet another curtain call.) Not knowing I'd get another chance I took in the first screening, after which I doubted I'd see a more visually splendid movie in 2016. (I was right.) Anton Walbrook, an actor always well-deployed by the Archer, dove into the Die Fledermaus role with zeal, capped with a polite but weary summation that shook even now, far from Vienna, but resonating with our current wars.

The Vienna series continued into the days after the election. Badly wanting to get away from the ongoing flood of terrible news, I hopped on Caltrain and headed to the Stanford Theatre. Herbert Ross' The Seven-Per-Cent Solution was a movie I'd been longing to see again, and the meeting between Nicol Williamson's Sherlock Holmes and Alan Arkin's Sigmund Freud was a connoisseur's delight. But the scene in which Freud levelled up to destroy an anti-Semite on the tennis court, was what I needed to see that day.

With love and gratitude to all of the programmers whose diligent work makes picking ten difficult, and a particular shout-out to Elliot Lavine, who's about to make Portland, Oregon a better place.

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