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.

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