Tuesday, April 17, 2018

SFFILM 61 Day 14: Minding the Gap

The 61st San Francisco International Film Festival began two weeks ago and ends today. Each day during the festival I've posted about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

Image from Minding the Gap supplied by SFFILM
Minding The Gap (USA: Bing Liu, 2017)
playing: 8:45 tonight at the Roxie

With this year's daily SFFILM blog posts I've made an effort to highlight festival selections I've already seen, even if that meant highlighting a television show or an unannounced cartoon that ended up screening in a black-and-white Castle Films print (which was fine, honestly; that show could've benefited from Xenon 16mm projectors to make the image brighter, but the event was really as much a showcase for the musicians than the films; which was much better than Wednesday night's event where the band and its ego completely overwhelmed the image. I had to walk out midway through).

Today, on the festival's final day, I admit defeat. I'd made the best-laid plans to attend Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. and Tigre and Jupiter's Moon last week but couldn't make it happen after all. They all sound good and I hope to see at least one of them in a cinema today. Tigre will have to be the sacrificial lamb; it's just been revealed as one of the eleven SFFILM 61 features available for members to stream online (also including: CarcasseClaire's CameraDjon AfricaLouise Lecavalier - In MotionThe Next GuardianThe Other Side of Everything, Purge This Land, Salyut-7, Those Who Are Fine and Golden Gate Award honorable mention City of the Sun). But the most promising-sounding title screening in a cinema today, that I already have a ticket for is Minding the Gap. It's a much-praised feature from the venerable Chicago documentary production organization Kartemquin Films, best known for incubating Steve James films such as Hoop Dreams. James executive-produced Minding the Gap, and it appears to share his signature film's focus on young men inspired by athletic activity, in this case skateboarding. I'll see tonight if the similarities run deeper. I'm excited because Minding the Gap has been screening in festival after festival and picking up prizes at many of them.

In fact, today is definitely not your last chance to see Minding the Gap on a Frisco Bay screen. In May, it will make a return visit to two different festivals, the California Film Insitute's 2nd annual Doclands in Marin County, where it screens May 4th, and CAAM Fest (formerly known as the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival), where it screens May 13th. I was very pleased to see that the latter festival, which like SFFILM had used the Alamo Drafthouse in 2016 and 2017, has declined to do so in 2018.Read my "Forgetting the Alamo" blog post from a couple weeks back to see why this venue change matters to me.

I'm intrigued by the fact that CAAM Fest is moving back to their home base through 2015, the Kabuki. The ownership chain at this Japantown cinema goes back to the 1980s, when it was transformed by AMC from a live theatre to San Francisco's first 8-screen multiplex. When AMC sold the theatre to Robert Redford's Sundance Cinemas in 2006, both SFFILM (then SFIFF) and CAAM (then SFIAAFF) used the venue as their main hub. They continued to do so when Sundance replaced the old seats with more comfortable, better raked chairs and small tables suitable for heavier-duty food and drink options. But the Sundance Cinemas chain was purchased by Carmike in 2015, and I've heard many people speculate that the new owners had no interest in hosting film festivals, at least not without higher rental payments. Now, with Carmike gobbled by AMC, the Kabuki's ownership has come full circle. CAAM's return to the venue may reflect more willingness on AMC's part to host a festival than a stand taken about the Drafthouse. But I'll take it. Look for me at some of the CAAM shows; at minimum I hope to be at the Kabuki (for the first time in over three years) for the May 15th screening of the Shaw Brothers martial arts classic Golden Swallow starring the legendary Cheng Pei-Pei.

SFFILM61 Day 14
Other festival options: The last two days of the festival were originally supposed to involve only two venues but on today, the very last day, a third was added; Lauren Greenfield's follow-up to The Queen of Versailles, Generation Wealth, is getting a make-up showing from a previous one that had technical difficulties, and it's happening at a venue I can't recall being used during the San Francisco International Film Festival before (though my festival memory only goes back 20 years), the underrated Laurel Heights single-screener the Vogue. If you'd prefer to stick to the Mission venues as planned, your options include the aforementioned Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. or Jupiter's Moon at the Roxie, or Tigre or (the non-aforementioned) Jordana Spiro's Night Comes On at the Victoria.

Non-SFFILM option: The New Parkway's weekly Tuesday Doc Night is tonight, this time featuring a screening of The United States of Detroit, with its director Tyler Norwood and Detroit native Karinda Dobbins in person. The United States of Detroit had its Frisco bay premiere at Doclands.

Monday, April 16, 2018

SFFILM 61 Day 13: .TV

The 61st San Francisco International Film Festival is nearly done, running through April 17th. Each day during the festival I've been posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

Image from .TV supplied by SFFILM
.TV (USA/TUVALU/NEW ZEALAND/FRANCE: G. Anthony Svatek, 2017)
playing: 4:30 today at the Roxie as part of the Shorts 4: New Visions program

Yesterday SFFILM Festival announced its annual Golden Gate Awards winners as well as Audience Awards winners. The latter are Sam Green's live documentary on the Kronos Quartet, A Thousand Thoughts and Youtuber Bo Bunham's directorial debut Eighth Grade; I've seen neither but Eight Grade screens one last time again today, 2PM at the Roxie.

The Golden Gate Award winners are all listed in David Hudson's SFFILM round-up, if you scroll down to yesterday's date. Again I haven't seen any of the features but I've seen most of the shorts (all but the narrative winner Shadow Animals & runner-up Jodilerks Dela Cruz, Employee of the Month). I don't have any major quibbles with their other selections but my sensibilities matched the jury's most precisely in its selection of .TV for the New Visions Golden Gate Award for experimental film and video works. Named for the internet domain extension that, if current climate change trends continue could become the last remaining trace of the Polynesian nation Tuvalu, .TV draws on (according to its end credits) video footage of Tuvalu's islands from Youtube and the hors-frontieres website, along with a voiceover by Tuvaluan-in-exile Tiueli Papau, to create an experimental documentary with traces of apocalyptic "fiction". Add in the element of video footage streaming directly from websites paying to use the .tv extension (to the point that, according to a title card, it's become Tuvalu's steadiest source of income) in mundane domestic and office spaces, and we have a film that perfectly intersects our transforming world in the age of internet pervasiveness and environmental catastrophe. Not only can we watch images of beauty before their destruction on our multiplying screens, we can make movies about countries we may never have visited and even win prizes for them (if we're as talented as Svatek).

Second prize in the new Visions category went to Ameer Kazmi's meandering but eye-popping Fair Grounds; I personally prefer Akosua Adoma Owusu's small-gague sequel to an Academy Award-winning classic, Mahogany Too, or Kevin Jerome Everson's mesemerizing Rams 23 Blue Bears 21, or Hope Tucker's eerie exploration of a never-activated nuclear power plant Atomkraftwerk Zwentendorf, but it's a matter of small differences in taste, as the entire New Visions 4 program is solid work. Check it out today if you can slot it into your schedule, and check out SF Cinematheque, Other Cinema, BAMPFA and the Silent Film Festival for upcoming screenings of experimental film and video from the present and past.

SFFILM61 Day 13
Other festival options: In addition to Eighth Grade, today's the last SFFILM opportunity to see Amy Adrion's documentary about the hurdles facing women directors in Hollywood, Half the Picture, which I just learned includes an on-screen interview with local filmmaker Jennifer Phang in addition to the women (Miranda July, Ava DuVernay, Penelope Spheeris) listed in the festival program guide (one might think this year's program notes weren't written by locals). It shows at the Victoria. as does the French-Canadian zombie film Ravenous.

Non-SFFILM option: With the passing of Miloš Forman this weekend, I'm thinking fondly of his appearance at the 2004 edition of the festival, my first as press. In fact I named my wrap-up piece in Senses of Cinema after his great film shown that year, Taking Off- though I hesitate to link to the article because I'm embarrassed how I misgender the subject of one of the films I talk about (Beautiful Boxer). I'm trying to grow and learn. Anyway, tonight the San Francisco Symphony is presenting a screening of Forman's Amadeus at Davies Symphony Hall with live music replacing that of the film (though dialogue and sound effects will remain) and if I weren't working past the start time I'd be pretty tempted.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

SFFILM 61 Day 12: Drop By Drop

The 61st San Francisco International Film Festival is almost over; it runs through April 17th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

Image from Drop By Drop provided by SFFILM
Drop By Drop (PORTUGAL: Alexandra "Xá" Ramires & Laura Gonçalves, 2017)
playing: 3:00 today at the Roxie, as part of Shorts 3: Animation.

Drop By Drop is in my opinion the most visually impressive of the animated short films found in either the Shorts 5: Family Films program (in which Louise Bagnall's Late Afternoon and Erick Oh's “Pig: The Dam Keeper Poems” Chapter 4 are the standouts) or the Shorts 3: Animation program intended for mature audiences (not that they're particularly racy this year; in fact they're far less juvenile than the typical "Sick & Twisted" fare you might find on some animation programs).

A great example of documentary/animation hybridization, Drop By Drop takes audio interviews of Portuguese villagers reacting to the social and environmental impacts of climate change and desertification on the Iberian peninsula and imagines a fantastic visual landscape based on the metaphors in its interviewees' descriptions. Not only is the imagery striking and strong, the animation itself is a wonderful example of the under-utilized concept of "camera movement" in animation. Where so many independent animations have a very closed-off, shoebox feel (which can be beneficial to certain, but not all, subjects), Drop By Drop moves in all directions, creating a sense of vastness that befits its theme of long-rooted traditions becoming upended as families scatter to the four winds.

Other noteworthy selections in the Shorts 3 program include Oscar-nominated Negative Space by Max Porter & Ru Kuwahata, which is probably the best example of character animation in the set (I sorely wish it had won the Oscar over the self-important celebrity promo Dear Basketball), Leah Nichols' sweet, locally-focused rotoscope doc 73 Questions, and the humorous Icebergs by Elrini Vianelli.

The one that got to me emotionally was Oh Hi Anne, from local artist Anne McGuire, perhaps best known for her reverse-ungineered 1970s blockbusters like Snatchers Body The Of Invasion and Strain Andromeda The, or her performances as half of The Freddy McGuire Show. Here she also takes documentary audio, in this case voicemail messages left by underground film & video legends & longstanding Mission District residents George Kuchar (1942-2011) and his brother Mike, and applies a simple set of drawn images to them to create a little narrative about her friendships with her former teacher George, and later Mike. Combined with audio of a lovely song written and performed by McGuire, that I've gladly had running in my head for over a week now, and my own memories of meeting George, and showing him an article I'd written about one of his films Wild Night in El Reno, shortly before he died, I was in tears by the end of the short.

However, judging by the dismissive reaction of audience members around me during and after last weekend's Roxie screening, Oh Hi Anne was done a disservice by being placed into a program that, while perhaps pushing the boundaries of narrative and documentary animation, never really pushed past those boundaries. There used to consistently be a few examples of experimental animation in this program in the festival. With no selections like 2016 San Francisco International Film Festival picks All Rot by Max Hattler or Kazue Monno & Takeshi Nagata's Track to warm the audience up to expanding their ideas of what animation can do and be, it was easy for some viewers to pick on Oh Hi Anne as overly earnest or seemingly crude (I don't suppose any of the grumblers I heard are aware of McGuire's exquisite watercolor "Dark Universe", currently on display (along with Mike Kuchar's 1980 drawing "Faery Tale" and a slew of other great work by local artists from throughout history), at BAMPFA's must-see Way Bay exhibit). Admittedly, by most definitions of animation I'm aware of, Oh Hi Anne doesn't really qualify. But to me it feels like an essential piece of this year's SFFILM, challenging aesthetic boundaries and linking back to a gentle giant of Frisco Bay filmmaking who is still sorely missed by many members of the local community. I suspect if the experimental animation ハネムーンHanemun Honeymoon had been plucked out of the Shorts 4: New Visions program and put into the Shorts 3 set, perhaps in place of the slick, cute, but ultimately go-nowhere selection Hybrids, McGuire's film wouldn't have been the first in the show to totally upend audience expectations, and had a better chance of hitting with some of the cynics in the crowd.

SFFILM61 Day 12
Other festival options: Today's menu options include the presentation of the George Gund Craft of Cinema Award to collaborative filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman before a screening of their short doc End Game and the so-called "Closing Night" showing of Gus Van Sant's Don't Worry He Won't Get Far On Foot with Van Sant and composer Danny Elfman expected in person (I can't help but wonder if, with Elfman's former girlfriend Kim Gordon in the film, and speaking at the Nourse tomorrow night, she might make a surprise appearance as well. Pure speculation on my part), both at the Castro Theatre. BAMPFA's last day as a festival venue looks strong, with Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable, Wajib, a set of 16mm Nathaniel Dorsky shorts including Avraham, and Michael Hazanavicius introducing his Godard, Mon Amour. Meanwhile YBCA closes out its time as a 2018 SFFILM venue with Angels Wear White, Shirkers and Carcasse, and The Children's Creativity Theater says goodbye to its first festival year with Bisbee '17 and A Prayer Before Dawn. None of the titles mentioned in this paragraph will play during the final two days of the festival when it contracts to fill only the Roxie and the Victoria.

Non-SFFILM option: Another festival opened yesterday at a former SFFILM venue I have a lot of fondness for, Japantown's New People Cinema; they're hosting the 2nd Annual Cherry Blossom Film Festival, highlighting features made in Japan. Yesterday they had a 3-title tribute to a filmmaker I first encountered via the San Francisco International Film Festival, Shunji Iwai, but the rest of the festival is devoted to animation, such as The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, by the great Studio Ghibli master Isao Takahata, who passed away this week. Today's offerings include a Japanese-dubbed, English-lauguage version of Takahata's partner Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro (which originally was released in Japan on a head-scratching double-bill with Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies), and the more recent Miss Hokusai.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

SFFILM 61 Day 11: To Be Or Not To Be

The 61st San Francisco International Film Festival is down to the home stretch; it runs through April 17th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

Image from To Be Or Not To Be provided by SFFILM
To Be Or Not To Be (USA: Ernst Lubitsch, 1942)
playing: 1:00 tonight at SFMOMA as part of the Mel Novikoff Award presentation to film scholar Annette Insdorff.

I often try to make it out to SFFILM's annual Mel Novikoff Award presentation to an individual or organization that has deepened the general public's understanding of world cinema, and last year's presentation to local hero Tom Luddy (which I wrote up in some detail) was one of last year's festival highlights. I must confess not being directly familiar with Insdorff's importance, but I trust the award committee to select someone worthy, and I'm excited to learn more about her at the event. She already gets points for making To Be Or Not To Be her carte blanche screening pick. If she has anything to do with it screening in 35mm she gets double points; I've been wanting to see it this way for years, as I wrote in a previous brief blog post, almost five years ago during a (vehemently) different Presidential administration.

Hollywood movies of the so-called "Golden Age" of the 1930s and 1940s are known for their glamour, for their stars, and for their maintenance of a consistent baseline standard of production quality. They're not often known for their boldness in speaking truth to power, To Be Or Not To Be might be one of the most noteworthy exceptions (not that it skimps in the glamour, star and production quality departments).

Filmed in the fall of 1941 and released just a couple months after the United States declared war on Hitler's Germany, To Be Or Not To Be combines a wartime spy-thriller plot with breakneck comedy, underlining the buffoonish aspects of Adolf Hitler and his beyond-brutal regime while drawing parallels between high-stakes politics and the little vanities and betrayals common in the show business world.

This improbably clever film follows a band of Warsaw actors who unexpectedly get caught up in a scheme aiding the underground resistance movement after Hitler's invasion of Poland. Radio star Jack Benny and Carole Lombard (in her final completed role before her plane crashed in early 1942) play the central pair of Shakespeareans; each turns in what is probably the greatest screen performance of their career. Though directed by a Berlin Jew who'd fled Germany not long before Hitler rose to power, the film's subject matter was seen as too raw at the time of its release for some critics and audiences. Others instantly praised it as the timeless comedy classic it has become.

SFFILM61 Day 11
Other festival options: Today marks the sole SFFILM screenings of the kid-friendly Shorts 5: Family Films program or the probably more adult-minded documentaries on Ruth Bader Ginsberg (RBG) and Joan Jett (Bad Reputation), all at the Castro; the last of these is expected to feature an in-person appearance by its subject as well as its maker; the others will have to settle for the latter. It's also your final chance to see SFFILM screenings of the excellent I Am Not A Witch at BAMPFA, of the Georgian film Scary Mother and an intriguing Swiss film by a director mentored by Lav Diaz and James Benning: Cyril Schäublin's Those Who Are Fine, both at the Creativity Theater, and of the festival's first selection from Kyrgyzstan in 20 years, Suleiman Mountain, at the Roxie.

Non-SFFILM option: I'm actually hosting this one myself. At 7PM tonight, I'm screening a new documentary called Parque Central, which premiered locally at the San Francisco Latino Film Festival last September, at a non-profit in the Tenderloin called the Faithful Fools (address: 234 Hyde between Turk and Eddy), and the filmmaker Ricardo Gaona, up from his home in Los Angeles for the weekend, will be in attendance. There will also be a short doc called Temporal Cities made right in the Tenderloin; its co-director Lizzy Brooks will also be in attendance projecting 35mm slides as part of the presentation. There will be a discussion following. Oh, and it's all FREE to the public.

Parque Central doesn't have distribution yet, as far as I know, but it isn't the kind of film you'd want to watch on a tablet, computer monitor or even a large television set, if you had the chance to see it projected on a screen like the one at the Faithful Fools. Seeing it large, it transports you to another part of the world: the ancient city of Antigua in the highlands of Guatemala, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most increasingly popular tourist destinations in Central America. Gaona shows us the beauty of the city not through the typical tourist gaze but through the daily routines of several children who live and work near the town square, called "Parque Central." Domingo, Eduardo, Hugo, Miguel and Yesenia shine shoes, sell refreshments, or braid hair for the plaza visitors and send the profits back to the cash-poor Mayan villages where their families reside. But thanks to Gaona's aesthetic choices, the documentary's tone is not one of sadness but of resilience, hope, and making the best of a difficult situation. His instincts are to observe and not comment, letting the audience come to our own conclusions about what we see. A counterpoint to his visual storytelling strategies is provided partway through with the introduction of an English-language narration voiced by a Bay Area-born tour guide, whose comments reveal the entrenched history of colonialism in the region.

Friday, April 13, 2018

SFFILM 61 Day 10: Wajib

The 61st San Francisco International Film Festival began last week and runs through April 17th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

Image from Wajib provided by SFFILM
playing: 6:00 tonight at SFMOMA and 3:15 Sunday at BAMPFA.

Wajib is the third feature film directed by Annemarie Jacir, whose Salt of the Sea has been called the first feature film directed by a Palestinian woman. It featured a performance by Saleh Bakri, who had just made his feature film acting debut in The Band's Visit and would soon play Elia Suleiman's father in his marvelous, autobiographical The Time That Remains from 2009. It's a shame that it's been close to a decade since Suleiman's last feature film; he exhibited a rare brilliance that is missed from cinema screens. But it's great to be reminded of him through Bakri's role in this very fine feature. He and his real father, Mohammad Bakri (an acting legend in his own right, who has worked in films by Costa-Gavras, Amos Gitai, Eran Riklis, Rashid Masharawi, and Paolo and Vittorio Taviani among others) play an estranged father and son, one living abroad and the other having remained in Nazereth. As father and brother of the bride they have the "duty" (the translation of the title) of delivering invitation to her upcoming wedding, and the social and political disagreements that flare up along the way constantly threaten to unravel their partnership. It's firmly in the long tradition of neorealist-inspired film festival fare, but it also reminded me of a variation on Broken Flowers or Two Days, One Night in which each door-to-door encounter is a catalyst for exploration of a father-son relationship, rather than of an individual.

SFFILM61 Day 10
Other festival options: With so much talk in the past few days about the feud between The Cannes Film Festival and a little mom and pop operation called Netflix, my position is that I've never been a Netflix subscriber but that I'm probably going to join at some point just to watch Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind when they decide to release it. Then I'll probably cancel until I find myself making a lifestyle change that precludes frequent cinema visits (heaven forbid.) I'm thankful no such feud exists between Netflix and SFFILM, and that I was able to see one of my favorite films of 2017, Nocturama, at the Castro Theatre because of it. Tonight SFFILM is showing two Netflix-owned titles that I doubt will screen in a larger local venue than they will tonight: Sandi Tan's Shirkers, playing 6:00 at BAMPFA, and John Woo's Manhunt, playing 9:00 at the Castro; in the latter case it's the sole SFFILM screening. Tonight's also the only SFFILM presentation of something called Deep Astronomy and the Romantic Sciences, which I'm not sure qualifies as a movie or as a cinema-aided variety show from Cory McAbee, director of the wonderful American Astronaut and Stingray Sam. I don't think this one will be available on Netflix down the road.

Non-SFFILM option: Tonight, after a week of build-up Alfred Hitchcock films finally screen in the Stanford Theatre's April-June calendar entitled "Hitchcock and Other Masters of Suspense". This weekend's double bill is the often-shown Rebecca, paired with the infrequently-screened (yet all-too-available via shoddy public domain home video transfers) Sabotage. It was one of these transfers that made me sit up around twenty years ago and realize Hitchcock's British period was just as well-worth exploring as the Hollywood hits I'd grown up on such as Rear Window and North By Northwest (which both show up later in the series). I've yet to see Sabotage in 35mm and I bet most of my readers haven't seen it that way either.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

SFFILM 61 Day 9: I Am Not A Witch

The 61st San Francisco International Film Festival began last week and runs through April 17th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

Image from I Am Not A Witch provided by SFFILM
I Am Not A Witch (UK/FRANCE/ZAMBIA/GERMANY: Rungano Nyoni, 2017)
playing: 6:00 tonight at the Roxie, with RUSH status showings at YBCA 8:15 Friday and at BAMPFA 5:30 Saturday.

One of my favorite new discoveries of this year's SFFILM festival so far, I Am Not A Witch tells a story, set entirely in the Southern African nation of Zambia, of an 8-year old girl accused of witchcraft and sent from her village on a tour of her country as a kind of combination lucky charm and sideshow. Often absurdly humorous in tone and visionary in design, this ultra-widescreen fable with a ring of truth is something that should certainly be seen on a big screen.

SFFILM61 Day 9
Other festival options: Though there's nothing hotter in the festival than tonight's double-venue (Grand Lake & Castro) centerpiece screening of Sorry To Bother You, which has been quickly selling each new set of advance tickets released by the festival, we all know it's getting a major theatrical release in just a few months, so it may be wiser to avoiding tying up precious time in a RUSH line and check out something less likely to show in a local cinema. That could mean Hong Sangsoo's Claire's Camera, distributed by Cinema Guild (which notoriously lets SFFILM festival runs substitute for true local release) and playing for the third and final time at YBCA tonight. Or perhaps a distributor-less selection like Jenny Suen's The White Girl, with cinematography by Christopher Doyle, and playing the Creativity Theater tonight. Or another without a current distributor, Jupiter's Moon by Johanna and White God director Kornél Mundruczó; it plays the Castro tonight.

Non-SFFILM option: Tonight's the final night at the Stanford Theatre to see the original 1940 version of Gaslight, directed by UK undersung auteur Thorald Dickinson and starring Anton Walbrook in the role Charles Boyer later made his own, along with the 1944 Lewis Allen ghost story The Uninvited, both in 35mm prints.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

SFFILM 61: Day 8: I Was Born, But...

The 61st San Francisco International Film Festival began last week and runs through April 17th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

Image from I Was Born, But... supplied by SFFILM
I Was Born, But... (JAPAN: Yasujiro Ozu, 1932)
playing: 8:00 tonight at the Castro Theatre

What to say about I Was Born, But...? It's one of my very favorite Ozu films, one of my favorite silent films, heck, one of my favorite films of all time. As I wrote in my essay for the 2011 San Francisco Silent Film Festival screening:
Usually described as a comedy, I Was Born, But… has been compared to Hal Roach’s Our Gang series. Yet it is much more, reflecting a tumultuous 1930s Japan being shorn of its traditions. The film focuses on the family of a typical white-collar worker (“salaryman”), his stay-at-home wife, and two school-age sons, who have just moved from Tokyo’s crowded center to an unfinished suburban development. As the boys struggle to find a place in the pecking order among neighborhood kids, they outwit the dandified young Taro and his bullying protector with their wily antics, only to be humiliated when their father plays jester to his boss, who happens to be Taro’s father. Ozu uses schoolboy politics to mock the hypocrisies of adult hierarchies. 
I haven't watched I Was Born, But... since that SFSFF showing, so I'm excited to finally revisit it tonight in 35mm. The musical accompaniment at the Castro is Blonde Redhead, a band I don't think I ever listened to in their 1990s heyday, but whose somewhat Sonic Youth-esque album Fake Can Be Just as Good I've been listening to a bit over the past year or so. I'm not sure how the pairing of a New York band with roots in noise punk, and a boisterous but thoughtful silent comedy are going to gel, but I'm almost always up for giving the San Francisco International Film Festival's annual silent film/indie rocker mash-ups a try in the hopes of another sublime night like Dengue Fever & the Lost World.

Since 2011, I've been pleased to have near-annual chances to see Ozu's silent films at the Castro Theatre, thanks to the SF Silent Film Festival. They showed Tokyo Chorus in 2013, Dragnet Girl in 2014, That Night's Wife in 2016, and it was just the other week announced they'll be showing another one, his final silent An Inn in Tokyo, on the second day of its now-expanded-to-five-day 2018 festival. As an Ozu completist I love having opportunities to see on such a large screen these also-excellent films, but I have to admit the loyalty to two Japanese directors (the other being Teinosuke Kinugasa, who has seen two films show over the years), as much as I like them, gives me second thoughts when I reflect that the festival hasn't shown any films by the likes of Mikio Naruse, Kenji Mizoguchi, etc. So I was thrilled to see that for the first time SFSFF will show two films from Japan in 2018: An Inn in Tokyo and Policeman, which for more than ten years I've regretted missing at the PFA's Tomu Uchida retrospective. This means there will be an unprecedented three films from Asia in this year's SFSFF, the third being A Throw of Dice from India. It looks like a truly wonderful festival for a silent film lover like myself, with only two features selected (opening night film The Man Who Laughs and An Inn in Tokyo) that I've seen before, and the latter only on a French-intertitled VHS tape from Le Video. According to the Film on Film Foundation calendar, ten of the festival's twenty feature-length selections, as well as one full shorts program, will screen in 35mm prints; these include the Ozu & Uchida films as well as some of my most-eagerly anticipated selections like Jean Grémillon's The Lighthouse Keepers, Rex Ingram's Mare Nostrum introduced by Kevin Brownlow, the Tom Mix Western No Man's Gold, and an Italian film called Trappola which will be screening with footage of Market Street footage after the 1906 earthquake, filmed by the same brothers who filmed the famous A Trip Down Market Street just a few days before; this newly-uncovered footage will re-premiere digitally at a long-sold-out Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum screening this coming Saturday.

SFFILM61 Day 8
Other festival options: Tonight's your last chance to see The Shape of a Surface: Experimental Shorts program of 16mm works by some of the great modern practicioners of hand-made, medium-specific analog moving images. I already mentioned how the pair of the late Paul Clipson's films in the program are substitutes for two films that couldn't be finished onto 16mm prints in time for the festival, after his shocking February death. Since then I learned that another two films in the program, Pablo Mazzolo's NN and Jennifer Saparzadeh's Nu Dem, were originally intended to screen in 16mm (like the other seven films showing tonight will be) but that the sole available release prints were damaged in one case and destroyed in transit in another, thus necessitating digital presentation at the Roxie tonight. The same venue hosts the final SFFILM screening of No Date, No Signature, which I profiled yesterday, tonight as well, while BAMPFA hosts the second of three SFFILM screenings of Mila Turajlić's The Other Side of Everything, which she is expected to attend along with her filmmaking subject: her activist mother Srbijanka Turajlić.

Non-SFFILM option: In addition to being an SFFILM venue tonight, BAMPFA is hosting another installment of its Wednesday afternoon lecture and screening series led by UC Berkeley professor Anne Nesbit. The theme of the series this semester has been "Eisenstein and His Contemporaries", complementing the evening/weekend Sergei Eisenstein retrospective at the venue that will wrap up April 21st with a double-shot of Ivan the Terrible Part I & II (with a few minutes of surviving test footage from the never-made Part III). I've been able to catch a few of the screenings and lectures, and got a lot out of both viewing and lectures for Pudovkin's The Battle of St. Petersburg and Eisenstein's The General Line, as well as the lecture-less showing of the Swiss-made rarity Misery and Fortune of Women (shown half digitally, half in 35mm). But nothing compared to finally fillng one of my greatest cinematic gaps Alexander Nevsky in a great 35mm print. This is the film & print that will be discussed and be screened at BAMPFA today at 3:10. If you're free at that time you should definitely go. It's been called a masterpiece enough times to be a cliché by now, but it's true.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

SFFILM 61 Day 7: No Date, No Signature

The 61st San Francisco International Film Festival began last week and runs through April 17th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

Image from No Date, No Signature supplied by SFFILM
No Date, No Signature (IRAN: Vahid Jalilvand, 2017)
playing: 6:00 tonight at the Children's Creativity Museum, and 8:30 tomorrow at the Roxie.

I'm rather ashamed that my five previous posts highlighting daily San Francisco International Film Festival screenings gave short shrift to the "International" in the event's name. Sure, I mentioned at least one non-US offering in each post's "Other festival options" section (do you read those, by the way?) but the main selection each day up to now has always been an American offering. No more! I've finally been able to catch some recommendable international features playing this year's SFFILM festival, and hope my daily dispatches can help steer interested readers to good work they might not be able to see in circumstances as ideal as the festival's.

No Date, No Signature is an ideal example. Although it's found on the festival's list of "Films With Distribution" circulating around various venues (I picked one up at SFMOMA Sunday before watching The Workshop, an underwhelming French film), I must confess I've never heard of the distributor listed (Distrib Films), and when I check its website I see they're promoting three movies, a Raymond Depardon documentary that had 3 YBCA screenings recently, a Lucas Belvaux movie that screened once in Napa last month, and a third French feature that at the moment has no sign of past or future Frisco Bay screenings. So unless Distrib Films is able to secure more local showdates for an Iranian film than for its French ones, these may be your last chances to see No Date, No Signature on a cinema screen.

And it's something you'd probably want to see that way. The irony is that, as it's a "distributed" film, I'm not supposed to publish a full review during the festival, and wait until its theatrical release here (which may or may not ever occur) to write about it in any depth. So for now, my "capsule" thoughts are that it's a well-done drama in much the same tradition as those of the great Asghar Farhadi, and that if it doesn't quite measure up to the metacinematic intelligence of The Salesman, it includes several strong setpieces that cry out of the big screen, including a confrontation in a chicken processing plant that appeals to my own values as a longtime vegetarian. No Date, No Signature makes a fascinating contrast with SFFILM61's other Iranaian selection, Mohammad Rasoulof's A Man of Integrity. Both are concerned with corruption in Iranian (or any) society, but where Rasoulof powerfully and precisely hammers his theme, to the point that his movie was banned from release within Iran, No Date, No Signature director Vahid Jalilvand takes a more subtle tack, and leaves enough vague that he was able to premiere at the Fajr International Film Festival in Tehran, where Navid Mohammadzaden won a prize for his performance as a struggling family man.

SFFILM61 Day 7
Other festival options: Today YBCA hosts the first of three festival screenings of Purge This Land, the latest from experimental film essayist Lee Ann Schmitt, who brought California Company Town to the festival nine years ago. Today also marks the San Francisco International Film Festival debut of a new (and simultaneously ninety-two year old) venue, the Grand Lake Theater. This ornate movie palace isn't on my list of regular haunts because it doesn't reside near a BART or CalTrain station, but I have on occasion braved AC Transit bus schedules to catch something there, and I've never regretted it. Neither I nor my friend Michael Hawley who has been loyally attending the festival since the 1970s can recall any screenings in Oakland before. And the festival is only taking baby steps in the venue this year, showing a total of three features. Thursday's Sorry to Bother You screening was the first SFFILM to go to RUSH status shortly after tickets went on sale to the general public last month. But as of this writing, neither of tonight's Grand Lake selections, A Boy, A Girl, A Dream or Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. are at RUSH, despite screening in the more intimate, but no less gorgeous, theatre 3. If you want to sample the Grand Lake as a venue this year out of curiosity, or even just to help show SFFILM that an Oakland venue will support screenings even if they're not of Oakland's hottest contribution to cinema since Ryan Coogler, consider these screenings. The movies look like they might be pretty good too.

Non-SFFILM option: Did you know the Grand Lake is able to screen films in 70mm? They're showing Steven Spielberg's latest Ready Player One that way three times today in their biggest cinema, with no futther showtimes confirmed as of this writing.

Monday, April 9, 2018

SFFILM 61 Day 6: Chew-Chew Baby

The 61st San Francisco International Film Festival began last week and runs through April 17th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

Screen capture of Chew-Chew Baby from Universal DVD
Chew-Chew Baby (USA: James "Shamus" Culhane, 1945)
playing: 8:00 tonight at the Castro Theatre as part of A Celebration of Oddball Films With Marc Capelle's Red Room Orchestra

Chew-Chew Baby is the thirteenth of twenty-five theatrical cartoons starring Woody Woodpecker (after his debut in the Andy Panda 'toon Knock Knock) produced by Walter Lantz for Universal Pictures before Lantz had a falling out with Universal and first took his cartoons to United Artists, then stopped production for most of 1949 and 1950 (he returned to Universal in time to release a Woody cartoon in January 1951). It's the fourth Woody cartoon directed by former Disney & Chuck Jones animator James "Shamus" Culhane, who Leonard Maltin called "the best thing that happened to Woody, and to Lantz, in the early 1940s". The frenetic musical finale of Culhane's first Woody Woodpecker cartoon The Barber of Seville famously used a style of "fast cutting" inspired by Soviet montage. Similarly, Chew-Chew Baby uses an almost subliminal upside-down frame that seems borrowed from the avant-garde to make a gag have extra impact late in the cartoon.

You won't see Chew-Chew Baby on any list of SFFILM festival selections on their website or in the paper program guides sprinkled around town. The list of 16mm prints from the late, great Stephen Parr's Oddball Films collection screening tonight at the Castro hasn't officially been made public. I learned that Chew-Chew Baby is planned to be among them by listening to DJ Marilynn's March 26, 2018 episode of KPOO-FM's "Let Me Touch Your Mind" (archived here) in which bandleader Marc Capelle talks about some of the films his Red Room Orchestra has prepared musical accompaniments for, also including what I think are probably the 1989 Neutrogena infomercial Choosing a Sunscreen described here, and Denys Colomb de Daunant's surreal A Dream of Wild Horses, a frequent Oddball Films screening selection.

Chew-Chew Baby was screened at Oddball in a 2016 drag cinema survey curated by Kat Shuchter, and a few years prior at one of Parr's own Strange Sinema shows. Though I didn't catch these particular screenings, Oddball was one of the few Frisco Bay screening venues that regularly showed animated film prints, usually in excellent condition. Parr often talked of how much of his archive came from the deaccessioned collections of Bible Belt university libraries, where the sports films were run ragged and the art films totally pristine. Perhaps vintage cartoons fell closer to the latter category. I can't count the number of great ones I had the pleasure of viewing in his twice-weekly screening showcases before they ended in December 2016 (he hosted a few more shows in his labyrinthine Mission District loft in 2017, before he died in October.) Soon after Parr's passing, I compiled a twitter thread of fifty of my favorite films seen at his space, 48 of them for the first time. A good third of the list was animation (most of the rest of it falling into "documentary" or "experimental" categories) and it includes Pantry Panic, the third Woody Woodpecker star vehicle made by Lantz (prior to Culhane's arrival) and by my reckoning the only one from the 1940s I've ever seen projected in a cinema space- until tonight, that is.

Beyond sussing out a few of the Oddball Films collection prints screening, I'm not precisely sure what's going to happen at the Castro tonight. Crucially, I'm not sure if the prints being shown that already have music and dialogue (including Chew-Chew Baby) will screen with the Red Room Orchestra's musicians and spoken word artists' sonic contributions integrated into the original soundtracks, or presented instead of them. Either approach may have its own aesthetic appeal, but both approaches treat the Oddball collection less as in its role as a repository for curated screenings, in which films were usually shown as their creators (whether these were celebrated auteurs or uncredited artisans working on behalf of faceless creators) intended, and more in the spirit of its existence as a stock footage archive, supplying hard-to-find images (more often than sound) for documentaries and features, including SFFILM 2018 selections Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, RBG and closing night feature Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot. Using existing art to create new art.

Purists may cry foul, but before they do I'd just like to talk about an amazing event at the Luggage Store Gallery on Market Street, where Stephen Parr and Other Cinema's Craig Baldwin faced off in a kind of "dueling archivists" presentation of their 16mm material, screening films in part or in full as they pleased, creating connections across their "sets" of each about an hour that helped unlock certain thoughts about media filmed in and about my hometown that had never occurred to me before, and that in many cases probably wouldn't had each film played out as intended by its makers. Parr showed certain favorites like A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire, Blackie the Wonder Horse Swims the Golden Gate, Jerry Abrams' Be-In and the untitled home-movie footage known lately as San Francisco Excelsior: Low Rider Car Show in complete prints, but let an excerpt from Let's See: Lopsideland bleed into a section of San Francisco: Queen of the West which bled into some of USA Poetry: Allen Ginsberg & Lawrence Ferlinghetti (this last of which, incidentally, will screen for free in its entirety at the SFPL Main Library as part of a Poetry Month event I've helped organize on April 28th), a kind of editing-as-performance that would probably have infuriated a prior version of myself as much as soundtrack tinkering would have, but that I responded to deeply. This event happened to occur on the day Andrew Sarris died, as if to hammer home the point that filmmaker intentions are not the be-all, end-all of film appreciation and understanding. Like Baldwin (who projected an equally impressive "set"), Parr was an example of archivist as auteur.

So I'm opening my mind to have an experience guided less by filmmakers such as Culhane and Daunant and more by Parr's collector instincts and by the musicians who have been assembled. I was fortunate to have an opportunity to speak with one of them, experimental percussion master William Winant, about the musical portion of the presentation. I've seen Winant peform in various diverse capacities over the years, such as with my then-favorite band Oingo Boingo at the Warfield in the early 1990s, and with his own ensemble at the annual Chapel of the Chimes Garden of Memory solstice event in Oakland. And he was part of one of my favorite San Francisco International Film Festival live music/film events in recent years, the 2013 presentation of Paul Leni's Waxworks accompanied by Winant, Mike Patton, Matthias Bossi and Scott Amendola, which is why I wanted his perspective on tonight's event. He told me that event (which is documented on youtube, though I'm not certain the sound & image line up precisely, thanks to the difference in film & video frame rates) was "99.9% improvised" outside the cover of Jacques Brel's "La Mort" that ended the show. Winant said that tonight's show will be "completely different", as "everything is in song form. The lot of the stuff is through-composed. People will be reading charts, or people will be reading lead sheets, and basically, they're song forms, or jazz forms where the musicians play over lead sheets." He named Capelle, Dina Macabbee, Devin Hoff and Ben Goldberg as among the Red Room Orchestra members who have composed and arranged a song or multiple songs to be performed alongside each of the Oddball film prints.

Finally, though this is a particularly overstuffed piece, it seems like a good place for me to publish a letter I composed this past January, when the Roxie hosted a memorial for Parr that I was unable to attend. The memorial is available to view online, as is a wonderful video tribute to Parr called 275 Capp Street made by one of his collaborators, Adam Dziesinski. Here's the (slightly edited) text of my letter:
Sadly, the plane flight Kerry Laitala and I had to come back from our New England holiday trip just got cancelled due to a snowstorm, and were unable to book another flight until Monday, so we’ll be missing this event we’d both looked forward to so very much as a way to commune with friends and strangers who’d been so deeply impacted by Stephen as we had.  
Kerry, a filmmaker, had been honored to collaborated with Parr on at least a half-dozen showings of her own work, and of work they’d collaboratively curated from their own archives. Few San Francisco curators have been as loyally supportive of Kerry’s work over the years as Steven, and enthusiasm like his means a lot to a mid-career filmmaker trying to sustain an exhibition portfolio. 
I, a voracious cinephile, feel embarrassed I never attended Oddball until I moved directly across the street from it from 2010-2014, but during that time (and to a slightly lesser extent since) I went many dozens of times and felt so welcomed by Stephen and his staff. I’m glad I got to know him not just as a film lover but as a neighbor who at any minute could come over and borrow an unusual piece of AV equipment like it was a cup of sugar (I lived with musicians & these occasional lendings went both ways across Capp Street).
When Kerry and I met at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2011 the fact that we quickly realized we had a few mutual friends was key to the encounter turning from a random flirtation to something deeper. Stephen was one of these few, and we so wish he were still around, not simply for the selfish reason that we’d want to let him know we’ve finally decided to get married this year, but because we know he had so much more to share with the world.
SFFILM61 Day 6
Other festival options: Today is the second of three screenings of Hong Sangsoo's unassuming little delight Claire's Camera, and the final screening not currently at RUSH status. Tonight also marks the sole SFFILM showing of Olivier Assayas's Cold Water, a 1994 film recently made available via DCP by Janus; I wouldn't expect another chance to see it in 35mm (the last in these parts was 2007) coming around soon, or maybe ever, so you'll have to shelve your anti-DCP biases if you want to see this in a cinema.

Non-SFFILM option: Speaking of animation, Oakland's all-digital New Parkway Theater is in the midst of an Animation Week and today's offerings include Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud's Persepolis, which I can definitely recommend. Today they also screen Cowboy Bebop: the Movie, which I haven't seen, and (inexplicably) the particularly terrible dubbed version of Hayao Miyazaki's glorious Princess Mononoke. Wait to see that one subtitled.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

SFFILM 61 Day 5: First Reformed

The 61st San Francisco International Film Festival began this week and runs through April 17th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

Image from First Reformed supplied by SFFILM
First Reformed (USA: Paul Schrader, 2017)
playing: 8:00 tonight at BAMPFA with Schrader in person

The festival is only a few days old but this is in pole position as the SFFILM narrative film to beat; if I see another new feature of its level of quality in the next week and a half I'll be very surprised (and pleased). I haven't seen enough of Schrader's films directed since his masterpiece Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters to weigh in myself (I'm glad I'll get a 35mm opportunity to see Patty Hearst next month at YBCA), but I've seen critics call it his best since Auto Focus (which I haven't seen), Affliction (which I have, but think this surpasses) and even Hardcore (which I'll have to think about). At the very least it wipes the rotten memory of The Canyons from mind.

I'm not supposed to say much about First Reformed because it's being released in May by A24 (with no Frisco Bay showdate that I've found yet, though) and thus is on the "Hold Review" list of films which I'm told to limit comments to 75 words or fewer. But I wouldn't want to say anything that might spoil someone's experience of seeing it knowing, as I did, little more than that it was the latest work by the guy who wrote a book about Dreyer, Bresson & Ozu (coming back into print soon) and the screenplays to Obsession, Rolling Thunder and a number of Martin Scorsese's better films. Let me just make a slight amendment to what I posted about it on twitter, which I trust is both vague and descriptive enough to be worth repeating: "Hell of a movie. Spareness reminiscent of late Oliveira (only digital), but always threatening to turn into a Scott Pruitt-era Taxi Driver."

SFFILM61 Day 5
Other festival options: Today is your only chance to see SFFILM screenings of their "Youth Works" shorts program of films made by student-age cineastes at the Roxie, the French animated feature The Big Bad Fox & Other Tales, or a Russian space travel blockbuster called Salyut-7 that appears to be inspired by a questionably accurate Putin-era documentary on the same topic; at least it'll look great on the big Castro screen (as, presumably, the cartoon will too). Today also marks the final SFFILM screenings of Hirokazu Kore-eda's The Third Murder and Johann Lurf's (STAR), both currently RUSH status showings at YBCA. And it's first of two screenings of the mostly-16mm experimental shorts program Shape of a Surface, put together by BAMPFA curator Kathy Geritz with Vanessa O’Neill and Metha Rais-Nordentoft; since originally announced the program has swapped out At Hand and Spiritual Ascension by the local & international experimental film & music communities' beloved Paul Clipson (1965-2018) with a pair of his greatest older works Chorus and Sphinx on the Seine. That shouldn't deter any true cinephiles from attending what promises to be one of the strongest programs of the festival, with new 16mm prints from Stephanie Barber, Jim Jennings, Alee Peoples, Nazlı Dinçel and local maker arc, a good friend of Clipson's who I definitely expect to attend today's BAMPFA show but not necessarily Wednesday's Roxie reprise.

You can also attend the festival's annual State of Cinema address, this time presented by the wonderfully iconoclastic filmmaker and raconteur Guy Maddin. I just yesterday had the pleasure of interviewing Maddin, and while it will take some time to transcribe and publish our full conversation, he did say this as a preview: "good riddance to the days when I could just go up and say all sorts of mischievous things. I'm too old to be the bratty little shit I once was, and I realize, now more than ever, how thoughtless and insensitive I was probably being. Who knows? I don't even want to think about it but luckily I have no memory. You know, we all need a little amnesia to get through life. I need a little more than the average person, and luckily I've got it in spades. I'm well aware that I should be contrite, so tomorrow when I talk I'm gonna try to take it very seriously."

Non-SFFILM options: Gotta mention two again: BAMPFA is actually hosting a few non-SFFILM showings in its tiny (29-seat) Theatre 2 while the festival is running in the 232-seat Barbro Osher Theater at the other end of the building. 3PM today it's Ingmar Bergman's first feature as a director, Crisis from 1946. Frako Loden has splendidly profiled the Bergman 100: The Early Years selections being held in this space in April & early May for Eat Drink Films. But it's also the second Sunday of the month, which always means a free 8PM Shapeshifters Cinema moving image/performance event in Oakland. Tonight's performer? The multi-talented music/video master Tommy Becker.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

SFFILM 61 Day 4: Smoke

The 61st San Francisco International Film Festival began Wednesday and runs through April 17th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

Image from Smoke provided by SFFILM
Smoke (USA: Wayne Wang, 1995)
playing: 7:30 tonight at Dolby Cinema as part of the festival's Tribute to Wayne Wang

I believe I saw Smoke years ago, perhaps shortly after it was released onto videocassette (I seem to associate it with those Blockbuster plastic cases) but I barely remember it at all. I definitely recommend listening to its director talk about how he protected this Miramax release from the meddling of Harvey Weinstein in his recent KQED interview.

I'm interested in this screening for two main reasons beyond refreshing my memory of what at the time was apparently a forgettable movie for me (albeit one that I've heard others talk of more positively in the meantime). One is that I'm interested in hearing the director of great San Francisco (and not just Chinatown) films like Chan is Missing and Dim Sum: a Little Bit of Heart speak about his work in person; he'll be interviewed by the auteur of Colma: the Musical and Fruit Fly, H.P. Mendoza.

The other reason is my curiosity about the Dolby Cinema, which as far as I know has only opened to the general public for ticketed screenings twice: during the first weekend of the San Francisco International Film Festival last year, and during the first weekend of the festival this year. In 2017 I took advantage of the occasion only for one film, Score: A Film Music Documentary, which certainly showed off the sound capabilities of the space well by way of Bernard Herrmann, John Williams, Hans Zimmer etc (it was heavy on big-budgeted Hollywood symphonic music and barely addressed anything foreign or indie for better and worse). This year I want to see how it stacks up when showing work shot by a great cinematographer, and I think Adam Holender, who shot Midnight Cowboy and Puzzle of a Downfall Child a quarter century before spending time as something of a Miramax house DP, lensing Boaz Yakin's Fresh a year before Smoke and M. Night Shyamalan's studio debut Wide Awake a few years after, qualifies. Normally I'd want to see a movie made during the 35mm era (even if at the tail end, by many though not all accounts) on 35mm but I've heard miraculous things about the Dolby's deep blacks and I want to see them tested out on a new remastered digital "print" so I can know precisely what photochemical restorations are up against these days.

Unfortunately at this writing all advance tickets to Smoke are unavailable, but you can check the SFFILM website again at the daily "noon release" of tickets to some (not all) SFFILM shows, or wait in the RUSH line to see if you can be seated at the time of the screening. Just remember to eat dinner beforehand; no food or drink of any kind is allowed inside the Dolby, and they check you bags to make sure you won't be a scofflaw.

SFFILM61 Day 4
Other festival options: The first screenings of Golden Gate Award nominated shorts are today, all at the Roxie: narratives & documentaries in one program, animation in another, and experimental works in a third. It's also the second of three SFFILM screenings of Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof's A Man of Integrity, 9:30 tonight at SFMOMA.

Non-SFFILM option: I can't limit myself to just one: if I weren't going to SFFILM I'd be sorely tempted by tonight's female-focused Other Cinema line-up or the 100-year old Mary Pickford film Stella Maris, with a screenplay by San Francisco's own Frances Marion, screening in 16mm at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont.

Friday, April 6, 2018

SFFILM 61 Day 3: Avraham

The 61st San Francisco International Film Festival began Wednesday and runs through April 17th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

Image from Avraham supplied by SFFILM
Avraham (USA: Nathaniel Dorsky, 2014)
playing: 6:00 tonight at SFMOMA as part of the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award presentation, and at 5:45 Sunday April 15 at BAMPFA.

Avraham is, like all of Nathaniel Dorsky's recent films, an extraordinary beautiful silent 16mm film intended to be projected at 18 frames per second (rather than the 24 fps standard cemented in the early sound-film era), which he calls "sacred speed" and considers "gentler" than the faster pace most of us are accustomed to viewing films at. As Jeremy Polacek writes, Dorsky's films "hover on the rim of recognition, not quite perceptible, because knowing would somehow be less." Unlike his other works, however, Avraham was named before it was filmed, making it a break from the filmmaker's prior work in that it directly and explicitly dialogues with Dorsky's Jewish heritage.

I have a particular interest in the way films exist as records of the world around us, and I've spent a good deal of time and energy investigating how the great tradition of experimental filmmakers in my hometown (most notably, in partnership with my friend Brecht Andersch, Christopher Maclaine, but I've also worked on the pychogeographic implications of films by San Francisco-based artists like Bruce Baillie, James Broughton, ruth weiss, Sidney Peterson, Curt McDowell, etc.) So it's tempting, knowing that Mr. Dorsky is a resident of my childhood neighborhood of the Richmond District, to attempt to identify the places and objects, the store windows and sidewalks, that his camera captures in his films. I have learned to resist this temptation, however, for several reasons. First, watching his purely cinematic films in this way feels very much at cross-purposes to their intentions and to the calming, meditational magic that they can work on the viewer when their rhythms and explosions of nurturing light and beauty are understood not as representation but as structures of images unto themselves. Second, trying to identify these images and place them in the world outside the film, is almost always impossible, even for someone familiar with the streets he is shooting in. I'm convinced that Dorsky knows exactly how long to hold a shot so that it can cut to another one just a moment before recognition can register, and almost always chooses to use this knowledge.

I say "almost always" because of shots like the one shown above, from Avraham, is an exception, as I recall. I saw Avraham one and three quarter times (long story; short version: the projector belt broke the first time through) back in November 2015, and I recall being shocked by the camera's attention to this magnificent tree that I was able to recognize as the one growing out of Mallard Lake in Golden Gate Park. Even the majority of viewers of Avraham who don't recognize the tree as deeply as Golden Gate Park frequenters might, I suspect if I ask anyone who'd seen the film if they remember that tree, they'll know exactly what I'm talking about. I got a distinct sense that Dorsky wanted us to see it with a different set of eyes than we see most of the things in his films, which is why he allowed it to risk a representational quality that earlier films I've seen generally don't flirt with. Though I haven't seen some of the works Dorsky has filmed in the interim -- I've seen Intimations but not Autumn or The Dreamer, which is why I'm pleased that all three join Avraham in tonight's program -- at least the first two of the seven films in Dorsky's geographically-themed (and named) Arboretum Cycle, Elohim and Abaton seem to me to continue this representational risk, and I don't think it's pure coincidence that a) the first of these films, like Avraham, has a Hebrew word as its title (the second is Greek) or that b) Mallard Lake is less than a mile from Golden Gate Park's Arboretum.

As you can see, I'm very happy with the SFFILM decision to give their POV Award to Dorsky. I'm a fan, and we have many mutual friends. I can't wait to see these 16mm prints in the refurbished SFMOMA space, which in its prior incarnation was often singled out by Dorsky as a particular favorite place to show his work. He's already announced that on June 14th he'll be back to screen at SFMOMA, this time with the Arboretum Cycle, the seven films shot and edited since he completed the four screening tonight. Moreover, while the POV Award annually goes to moving image artists working in various modes, from documentary to animated short to video art and gallery-style installation, to my mind (and according to an SFFILM press release) Dorsky is the first pure "experimental filmmaker" to have gotten the award since Pat O'Neill did fifteen years ago.

SFFILM61 Day 3
Other festival options: Tonight the new-for-2018 SFFILM festival venue Creativity Theatre hosts the first SFFILM screening of Amy Scott's documentary Hal, about the director of one of the 1970s' most remarkable streak of American narrative features, running from The Landlord through Being There & including shot-in-Northern California classics Harold And Maude (entirely local) and Bound For Glory (partly shot in Isleton & Stockton). Tonight also marks the first SFFILM screenings of Edouard Deluc's Gaugin: Voyage to Tahiti (early in his career Dorsky received an Emmy for his photography for a documentary on Gaugin, incidentally) and Paul Schrader's First Reformed, both at the Victoria. Schrader is expected to attend his film.

Non-SFFILM option: Palo Alto's all-35mm gem (which I've seen the main subject of this blog post attend on several occasions) the Stanford Theatre begins its new April-June calendar, this one focused mostly on thrillers by Alfred Hitchcock and others. Tonight's (as well as tomorrow's and Sunday's) double-bill is the George Cukor-directed 1944 version of Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Angela Lansbury, along with the 1943 Best Picture Oscar winner Casablanca. I've never really thought of Casablanca as a thriller before but it does seem to share some DNA with films like Ministry of Fear and Notorious, both of which come later in the Stanford season.