Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Thin Man (1934)

WHO: Dashiell Hammett wrote the novel this was based upon, first published in six consecutive issues of Redbook magazine in 1933 and early 1934.

WHAT: The Thin Man is one of those classic Hollywood movies that has little to no formal notability, but that stands out from the sea of studio-system potboilers by dint of character and tone. Its central characters are a married couple: a retired detective (William Powell) and his equally sleuth-like wife (Myrna Loy). Their marriage is one of the screen's most unique and beloved, for reasons that Brian Eggert gets into very well:
Nick and Nora’s blissful union is a rarity for onscreen marriages, even more so upon the film’s release in 1934, just two years after the end of Prohibition. Cinemas were filled with morality tales, further restricted by the recently established Production Code. But Nick and Nora’s penchant for drink isn’t represented as a kink in their marriage or a grand social problem; rather, it’s a social lubricant that greases the film’s funniest lines. A reporter asks Nick about the murder mystery: "Can't you tell us anything about the case?" and Nick replies, "Yes, it's putting me way behind in my drinking." Alcohol fuels their carefree party lifestyle, sustained by Nora’s moneyed background and Nick’s plan to live happily off his wife’s bank account. None of the usual insecurities apply—he’s comfortable with the fact that his wife’s the breadwinner, and her only complaint might be that her husband is less exciting when he’s not serving as a private detective.
WHERE/WHEN: Screens at the Castro Theatre today at 3:00 and 7:00, and, presented as part of the thirteenth annual Noir City festival on January 19th at 2:00 and 7:00. Also at the Balboa Theatre January 22nd at 7:30 PM.

WHY: It's been almost two weeks since the Noir City XIII program was announced at an annual Christmas-themed screening at the Castro. With ten different holiday-connected mid-twentieth-century films screened in five Decembers, one might wonder if Noir City impresario Eddie Muller and his curatorial companion Anita Monga are running out of "noir" films appropriate to the occasion. And indeed, the "noir" elements to this year's pairing of O. Henry's Full House and The Curse of the Cat People were clearly outweighed by their seasonal elements. Three out of five of the O. Henry adaptations are winter-set, and one explicitly about Christmas, while only one contains a character we might expect to see in a "straight" noir- Richard Widmark's safecracker in "The Clarion Call", often cited as a reprise of his career-launching Tommy Udo character from Kiss of Death. Meanwhile The Curse of the Cat People, while a beautiful depiction of a family experiencing shifting seasons in New England, resists all classification usually attempted on it, whether as a horror picture, a sequel, or as Muller noted from the stage in his introduction, a B-movie; it wears the "noir" label no more comfortably.

So it's a bit of a surprise to see a Yuletime-set detective film like The Thin Man programmed as part of Noir City's main event in January, knowing it could've been "saved up" for a future December showing. I'm guessing it's also unprecedented for a Noir City selection to be shown so shortly after a Castro booking arranged by the "regular" venue programming team headed up by Keith Arnold. But there's surely a reason or two why The Thin Man simply had to be screened at this year's edition of Noir City and I'm here to tease out some possible culprits. 

First, The Thin Man has never screened at a Noir City festival before, not even at the daylong Dashiell Hammett tribute in 2012. What better year for it to make its debut than a year in which the festival theme is "'Til Death Do Us Part"? In the midst of a week and a half of nearly two dozen films celebrating some of the worst marriages in cinema history, it may be necessary to have a day set aside for perhaps the most memorably positive matrimonial depiction dreamed up by Hollywood. Contra the information in the first sentence of the last paragraph of this preview article, Muller and Monga have placed The Thin Man a third of the way into the festival, timed perfectly as a breather after a weekend of infidelities, murders, and other impediments to wedded bliss. 

Second, The Thin Man and especially its double-bill-mate sequel After the Thin Man fit snugly into a sub-theme running through much of this year's festival: San Francisco. After last year's international noir celebration in which almost all of the 27 films shown were set (and often shot) abroad, it was a natural to make Noir City XIII a real homecoming, with more films made in or about Northern California than any festival since 2003's inaugural edition. The festival kicks January 16th off with the big discovery from that festival, Woman on the Run, which I expect will permanently solidify its place in the canon of San Francisco noirs with this newly-premiering restoration funded by the Film Noir Foundation (and Noir City ticket sales). Also on that bill is the 1950 Nick Ray film Born To Be Bad, which is set in San Francisco but, unlike Woman on the Run, was not filmed here. Other films that either a) were set partially in San Francisco, Monterey, or otherwise north of the San Luis Obispo county line, b) were at least in part filmed in this region, or c) both, include both halves of the January 17 Joan Fontaine matinee of Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion and Ida Lupino's The Bigamist, of the can't-miss January 21 Barbara Stanwyck pairing of Clash By Night and Crime of Passion, and, I'm told, the January 24th Doris Day noir Julie. There may be other San Francisco connections throughout the festival (I've been clued in that my hometown somehow figures into another Stanwyck selection I've yet to see for myself called No Man of Her Own). The Thin Man's protagonists are, like Hammett himself, San Francisco residents, but in the original film the action is all in New York City, where they are vacationing. It's not until After the Thin Man that they return home and we get to see unprocessed shots of William Powell and Myrna Loy walking up Telegraph Hill and driving down Market Street.

Finallly, for the first time since 2006 the Noir City festival will be held during the week of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, meaning that unlike in recent years in which Monday night selections were often obscurities aimed at hardcore noir-heads, it makes sense to program a famous, crowd-pleasing title on a day which many potential attendees will be able to attend as a weekday matinee if they prefer that to evening showings. And those who might wish the Castro was screening films that wrangle with issues of civil rights and the ideals of Dr. King on his honorary day may at least approve that The Thin Man was shot by pioneering Asian-American cinematographer James Wong Howe, and that some of its key creators like Hammett and Loy were involved as white allies in civil rights struggles. But though Noir City has in the past hosted an "African-American noir" night, and even once planned to bring Harry Belafonte to town for screenings of Odds Against Tomorrow and Kansas City (he sent his regrets over video instead), the first few early years of the festival never involved thematic programs on the MLK holiday itself, and this year's programming above all continues that pattern.

HOW: Todays screening of The Thin Man is on a double-bill with a Marx Brothers comedy that I probably wouldn't want to see on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, A Day at the Races. Both films screen in 35mm.

The format for next month's Noir City screening of The Thin Man has not yet been revealed on the program website, nor via the reliable Bay Area Film Calendar. Curiously, only six of the twenty-five Noir City XIII film titles are listed on the Film Noir Foundation website as involving 35mm film: Woman on the Run and its fellow FNF restoration The Guilty, an archival print of Born to Be Bad, and restorations of The Bigamist, Douglas Sirk's Sleep, My Love, and the Max Ophüls masterpiece Caught. It's too early to read too much into this, as there are plenty of reasons why it might be so (including an uncharacteristic sloppiness on the part of designers). 

Perhaps these six prints are merely the ones with the most interesting pedigrees; other films in the program might be 35mm but simple release prints and not archival or restorations. It's also possible that these six are the only ones confirmed as 35mm, and that other formats are up in the air at this time, although it would surprise me to find out that rarities like, say, Joseph Losey's The Sleeping Tiger (part of an "American expatriate directors in Britain" night Jan. 22) or Luchino Visconti's career-launching James M. Cain adaptation Ossessione (screening with Les Diabolique Jan. 24 as an extension of last year's international noir foray) might be available in both high-quality 35mm and digital versions. But it's perhaps preferable to leave a format unannounced than to announce a 35mm print that might turn out not to appear (like the Castro did when listing this Sunday's Age of Innocence screening as 35mm on its "coming soon" page, only for it to become DCP when the actual January calendar was published). The possibility that the six mentioned titles will be the only ones screened on 35mm in the whole festival would be a rude shock for the many celluloid-loyal dwellers of Noir City's alleyways, but seems highly doubtful if only for the fact that a 35mm print of one of the other nineteen films on the program, The Thin Man, is screening today at the very same venue, if under a different aegis.

I believe the Balboa Theatre screening of The Thin Man will be digital, as the series of classics the venue is presenting is made up entirely of movies available via DCP. But the Balboa does retain 35mm capability and occasionally utilizes it, so it would be best to double-check the Bay Area Film Calendar shortly before the show date to see if it appears on it. If it does, expect a print after all.

UPDATE January 1, 2015: According to the Film On Film Foundation all Noir City screenings but one (No Man of Her Own on Friday, January 23) are expected to screen in 35mm, including The Thin Man!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

O. Henry's Full House (1952)

Screen shot from 20th Century Fox DVD.
WHO: Five different directors, three named Henry (King, Koster and Hathaway) and two others (Howard Hawks & Jean Negulesco) each directed a different short story by O. Henry.

WHAT: I haven't seen this film yet; I somehow missed it the last time it screened locally, at the Stanford Theatre's 2012 Howard Hawks festival. I love the idea of Hawks adapting "The Ransom of Red Chief"- putting him in the excellent company of Yasujiro Ozu. I also am tickled picturing Henry Koster directing Marilyn Monroe and his It Started With Eve star Charles Laughton in "The Cop and the Anthem". I don't remember O. Henry's stories "The Clarion Call" or "The Last Leaf" well enough to imagine Henry Hathaway directing Richard Widmark, or Jean Negulesco directing Anne Baxter, as they did here.

But the O. Henry story that's been most deeply-ingrained in me is of course the heartbreakingly ironic Yuletide tale "The Gift of the Magi", which in this film was helmed by Henry King and featured Farley Granger and Jeanne Crain (pictured above). Like "The Clarion Call" and "The Cop and the Anthem" it had been filmed previously in 1909 by D.W. Griffith (I have not seen these versions either). Unlike those, it had also been planned to be made into a Technicolor musical by Otto Preminger in 1945. That film was shelved however, making King's version the best-known made in Hollywood.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 7PM tonight only at the Castro Theatre, as part of the annual Noir City Xmas double-bill.

WHY: When Eddie Muller decided to use the announcement of the 2011 Noir City Film Festival as a fancy excuse to screen Remember The Night and Mr. Soft Touch in December 2010, I wonder if he realized he'd be creating a tradition that would stretch out for five Christmas seasons, providing excuses to show 35mm prints of ten holiday-related feature films to eager Castro audiences. Some of the selections have been more Xmassy (Remember the Night, last year's Christmas Eve) than noir, and others have been vice versa (Christmas Holiday in 2011 and Blast of Silence in 2013) but they've all been occasions to see mid-century motion pictures in a movie palace, and that's really all that matters. Tonight's screening pairs the O. Henry anthology with the wintry Curse of the Cat People, which I saw in a beautiful 35mm print at the Stanford last year. Between the two films there are seven different Hollywood directors, as Curse... was started by Gunther Von Fritsch in the director's chair, but finished by Robert Wise (his career-making promotion from the editor's booth) midway through production.

Even if you're not as excited as I am to see this double-bill, you may want to attend just to see a short documentary on the Noir City festival promised as part of the program, and to get the first eyeful of the full 2015 line-up. We already know that next year's festival is a week earlier than usual in recent years, running from January 16 to 25th, and that it will show the Film Noir Foundation's latest 35mm restorations, The Guilty and Woman on the Run (the latter a San Francisco-set Noir City rediscovery) at some point during the week and a half.  I'm dying to know if last year's "international" edition (which brought me to the Castro for every single film screened, for the first time in festival history) will have some world-class ripples into this year's program, and to find out if "Czar of Noir" Eddie Muller is planning anything special for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which has for the past couple years been an occasion for a Castro screening of Wattstax, which seems likely to be a tradition no more with Noir City back in that weekend slot (as it had been when it was founded).

The Castro does have all its remaining December screenings planned out (including some more Christmas-themed programs: Muppet Christmas Carol, Die Hard and Scrooged this Sunday and It's A Wonderful Life Monday), as well as a number of its January ones as well. Those who love SF Sketchfest and Noir City equally will be glad to see that they overlap much less than in previous years, and that it's easy to filter all film events on the comedy festival's redesigned website.

Meanwhile, the Roxie, in addition to being a Sketchfest venue (screening a Preston Sturges film for, I think, the first time ever!) along with the Castro, is currently winding down the third iteration of its own international (specifically French) film noir series. I attended last night's screening of Witness In The City, an impressively atmospheric thriller based on a story written by the duo from where the ideas for Diabolique and Vertigo originally sprang (it repeats tonight) and I'll Spit On Your Graves, an imagining of American racial dynamics in the late 1950s that seems positively inept (unless I have a far worse understanding of history than I think I do) and that while watching made me feel far more forgiving of Hollywood attempts to depict foreign countries than usual. Maybe the hackers that have just encouraged James Franco to cancel his participation in this weekend's all-Coppola celebration, and made last month's Castro screening of The Interview seem a like an absolute must-see in hindsight should take a look at this one too. (It repeats at the Roxie tomorrow.)

HOW: O. Henry's Full House and The Curse of the Cat People both screen in 35mm prints.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Cranes Are Flying (1957)

Screen shot from Criterion DVD
WHO: Mikhail Kalatozov directed this.

WHAT: The Palme d'Or-winning film at the Cannes Film Festival in 1958, and the only film from the Soviet Union to ever have won that festival's top prize, unless you count the festival's unusual 2nd year (1946) when eleven films (including Fridrikh Ermler's The Turning Point) shared what was then called the "Grand Prize". The Cranes Are Flying is a technical tour-de-force, especially the bravura cinematography from Sergey Urusevsky, but it's also an emotional powerhouse, its story of young lovers separated by World War II given great resonance through the performances of Aleksey Batalov (who later starred in Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears) and Tatiana Samoilova (who later played Aleksandr Zarkhi's Anna Karenina, and who passed away earlier this year) as the couple asunder.  

WHERE/WHEN: 5:30 today only at the Pacific Film Archive

WHY: Mikhail Kalatozov is one of my favorite filmmakers that I know almost nothing about. I've only seen four of his films, each of them masterpieces, and I know very little of his biography other than that he was born in Tbilisi, Georgia and got his start making silent films in that then-Soviet republic (such as Salt For Svanetia). His follow-up The Nail in the Boot got him in trouble with Moscow authorities, and his career was severely hindered for the next nineteen years (in which he made only three films) but that he made a resurgence in the 1950s, and that The Cranes Are Flying and its follow-up The Letter Never Sent (which I've never seen although it is available on a Criterion DVD) are considered quintessential films of the Khrushchev "thaw" era.  In 1964 he made the phenomenal I Am Cuba, which was denounced in both Cuba and the U.S.S.R. and unseen by the international general public until 1992 when it was presented by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola to agog audiences. By then Kalatozov had been dead nearly twenty years, his final film being a 1969 international co-production starring Sean Connery, Claudia Cardinale and Peter Finch called The Red Tent (another I have not seen).

The four Kalatozov films I'd seen before all screen in an 8-day period at the Pacific Film Archive this week as part of its extended focus on Georgian filmmaking. I unfortunately missed Salt For Svanetia and The Nail In The Boot last Saturday, triply unfortunate because the latter screened with a new-ish documentary on its director called Hurricane Kalatozov. This evening The Cranes Are Flying screens and tomorrow it's I Am Cuba. I was hoping The Letter Never Sent or others of his films might turn up in the next installment of this Georgian focus when it was announced online this week, but I'll have to wait to see if they turn up in the March-April conclusion to the series. Instead, the January and February installments of the series will spotlight the most famous living filmmaking son of Georgia, Otar Iosseliani, one of its most prominent female directors Lana Gogoberidze (who will be at the PFA in person with her films), and a few other odds and ends including reprises of films that particularly impressed PFA-diehards this fall, The White Caravan and Repentance.

The PFA's January-February 2015 schedule also includes the next (last?) installment of the archive's extensive Jean-Luc Godard series, featuring films from the 1990s up until 2010's Film Socialisme. I confirmed with curator Kathy Geritz that the PFA, like most local not-for-profit venues, does not have the technical capability to show Godard's 2 most recent films, which utilize (and indeed push the boundaries of) modern 3D technology. So unless someone brings it to the Castro, the Kabuki, or a link in the Landmark or Camera chains (all of which seem less-than-probable to me), Frisco Bay Godard fans will have to hope they can make it to one of the Rafael Film Center's dwindling screenings if they want to see his latest game-changer Goodbye To Language. Meanwhile there are still five more 35mm prints of Godard films (and a digitally-presented short film called Origins of the 21st Century) to play at the PFA in 2014, including Keep Your Right Up tonight after Cranes Are Flying and Hail Mary tomorrow after I Am Cuba.

Other PFA programs coming in the first months of 2015 include a Billy Wilder series featuring rare 35mm prints of Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend and four of his lesser-seen films, as well as digital presentations of a half-dozen of his most famous directorial efforts plus Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka, which he wrote the screenplay for. The African Film Festival returns with a special focus on female filmmakers, including two programs devoted to rarities by Sarah Moldoror, the pioneering classmate of Ousmane Sembène who also worked on The Battle of Algiers before starting her own career as a director. In a separate but related mini-series Mati Diop, the niece of another Senegalese master director Djibril Diop Mambéty, will be on hand to present screenings of Claire Denis's 35 Shots of Rum, which she gave an indelible acting performance in, as well as several of the films she's recently directed. Eric Baudelaire will appear in person to discuss and screen his films.

The first part of the Spring semester's Documentary Voices program will include films by Robert Flaherty, Frederick Wiseman, and the late Harun Farocki. As usual in odd-numbered years, the PFA will host screenings as part of the third International Berkeley Conference on Film and Media, this time collecting silent film scholars to discuss the serial form in silent cinema and as it has captured our attention in the modern era. I can't wait for the screenings of Hollis Frampton's entire Hapax Legomena cycle and of Hazards Of Helen helmer J. P. McGowan's last silent serial The Chinatown Mystery, starring and co-written by John Ford's brother Francis. Finally, Emily Carpenter's Film 50 class, which as usual has a few spaces available to members of the public, involves enough intriguing and rare 35mm screenings that any cinephile with Wednesday afternoons free will want to secure their spots as soon as tickets become available next month.

HOW:  The Cranes Are Flying screens from a 35mm print.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Broncho Billy's Wild Ride (1914)

Publicity photograph provided by Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum
WHO: Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson directed and starred in this.

WHAT: A short film featuring Anderson, Marguerite Clayton, True Boardman and a number of local schoolchildren from Niles, California where Anderson's studio was located. David Kiehn's page-turner of a history book, Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company, indicates that part of the story took as inspiration a real-life injury that would haunt Anderson well into his retirement. That book's short synopsis of the plot is as follows: "Billy, an outlaw on trial, escapes from court, but is caught after he saves the judge's daughter on a runaway horse."

WHERE/WHEN: Tonight only at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, at 7:30PM.

WHY: I wrote about Niles in a PressPlay/Indiewire article a few years ago, that has for some reason unknown to me be taken down:
Niles nestles against the hills of Fremont, California, 30 miles east of San Francisco and 350 miles north of Los Angeles. Filled with antique shops and humble residences, it’s a town steeped in motion picture history. The first cowboy movie star, G.A. “Bronco Billy” Anderson, and Charlie Chaplin were among those who encamped there to shoot pictures in the mid-1910s, before Hollywood became THE go-to site in California for filmmaking, 
Now, nearly a hundred years later, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum keeps the past alive with weekly Saturday evening screenings of silent movies backed by live musical accompaniments. It’s one of the few public venues where one can regularly see 16mm and 35mm prints of all kinds of American and occasionally European silents.
Tonight's Niles screening is the 500th Saturday night silent film show scheduled at the Museum's Edison Theatre since it was refurbished and reopened in 2005. 51 Saturdays per year (the only annual week off is the San Francisco Silent Film Festival weekend), film prints show on a very regular basis. Upcoming 16mm feature-film shows include The Lost World November 29th, and in December, parts 1 & 2 of Fritz Lang's epic Spiders (it's apparently the season for Lang's silent epics as the Castro shows Metropolis tonight digitally and the Berkeley Underground Film Society brings Die Nibelungen in two parts tonight and tomorrow), and finally for 2014, the delightful Colleen Moore film I dragged my family to the last time a Niles Saturday show fell on Christmas, Ella Cinders.

But one-reel and two-reel films that were the specialty of a studio like the one in Niles a hundred years ago, and programs made up of these are particularly popular today. Every month the museum programs at least one Saturday of silent comedy (November 22 is Chaplin in The Rink, Buster Keaton in The Boat, the Thanksgiving classic Pass the Gravy and Laurel & Hardy in Leave 'Em Laughing, while December brings Chaplin's Easy Street, Keaton's The High Sign and a pair of Christmas-themed shorts Their Ain't No Santa Claus and the anarchic masterpiece Big Business.) Tonight's program is an extra-special shorts program made up entirely of films shot in Niles, most around 100 years ago, including, in addition to Broncho Billy's Wild Ride, Arthur Mackley's The Prospector, the Snakeville Comedy Versus Sledge Hammers, and the first Chaplin film made entirely in the town back in 1915, The Champion.

The exception to the 100-years-ago rule is Broncho Billy and the Bandit's Secret, a brand-new silent Western shot in Niles with a genuine Bell & Howell 2709 hand-cranked camera (formerly used by John Korty) and starring Christopher Green, Bruce Cates, former silent-era child star Diana Serra Cary, and a slew of Western-garbed re-enactors. This film has screened in workprints and other preliminary versions before, but tonight is the official premiere of the finalized version at the Edison!

Tomorrow the Edison will host a screening of a independently-produced talking picture made in Niles in 2007. From the museum's press release:  
Weekend King is a romantic comedy filmed in Niles about a California dot-commer who buys a bankrupt town in rural Utah. Rupert is rich, but awkward, friendless, and loveless. In a quest to overcome his loneliness, Rupert expects to lord over the New Spring Utah populace, but ends up contending with people who don't buy into his newly invented confidence. But grappling with his bad investment turns out to be the key for finally finding friendship and love. See local characters in cameos in the local haunts including Joe's Corner, the Vine Cafe, the Mudpuddle Shop, and Belvoir Springs Hotel.
Before both days' screenings, there will be a free Walking Tour of Niles. This 75-minute tour will take you around downtown Niles and its neighborhoods, telling you tales of times gone by including film locations for the films being shown during the movie weekend. Nationally-recognized film historian David Kiehn, who is the film museum's resident expert on the Essanay film company, also knows his stuff about local buildings and historic sites. His walking tours always attract a crowd. This event is free but donations are gladly accepted.
HOW: All of tonight's films screen in 35mm prints with live music by Frederick Hodges.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

City of Sadness (1989)

Screen shot of City of Sadness clip from Music Box Films DVD of The Story of Film
WHO: Hou Hsiao-Hsien directed this.

WHAT: Almost certainly the most widely-acclaimed of Hou's seventeen feature films. As I wrote on this blog after my first viewing of City of Sadness back in 2009:
Every shot in the film is impeccably framed and lit, each scene impeccably staged, often in a way that stresses the relationship between the weight of history and the ordinary life of citizens living it. For example. As a group of students or intellectuals sit and debate politics, Wen-ching and pretty, young Hinomi (played by Xin Shufen) sit to the side of the room, exchanging notes with each other while a folk song plays on the phonograph. Hou situates his camera in the space between the table of students and the clearly smitten couple. It could be a point-of-view shot from the position of one of the debaters, but that seems unlikely. The students are swept up in their discussion and do not seem to be paying attention to the room's other occupants and their activities. No, this shot isolates the spirited discussion from the would-be lovers' attempts to lead a normal life unhindered by the intrusions of politics. At least for this moment, the two are able to exist in their own world; this sense is accentuated as the sound of the conversation subtly drops out and all we hear are sonorous musical notes as they are released from the record grooves. 
WHERE/WHEN: Screens today only at the Pacific Film Archive at 7:00 PM.

WHY: As excited as I was that the PFA had programmed a full Hou Hsiao-Hsien retrospective this Fall, I must admit I've attended far less frequently than I'd hoped. I forget that Fall is always by far the busiest time of the year for me when it comes to non-movie-related responsibilities, and that even screenings I wish with the whole fiber of my being I could attend, often slip through my fingers. I fear I may have missed my last-ever chance to see 35mm prints of highly-acclaimed films like A Summer At Grandpa's or A Time To Live and A Time To Die but I'm glad to at least have been able to view three exceedingly rare items in Hou's early filmography. His second film Cheerful Wind, made in his "pop cinema" period, was no masterpiece but had a fascinating reflexive quality as it followed a commercial film crew on location in a small Taiwanese village. The Boys From Fengkuei, his fourth feature, was a brilliant statement of autobiography and independence that launched Hou's long phase of working almost exclusively with non-professional actors, and feels like a thematic template for another Taiwan auteur's debut, Tsai Ming-Liang's Rebels of a Neon God. And Dust in the Wind, Hou's seventh feature, lives up to its reputation as one of Hou's most formally controlled and emotionally heartbreaking works.

Kathy Gertitz, the curator who organized the PFA's participation in this touring series, has been emphasizing in her introductions for these screenings the difficulty of including Hou's ninth and tenth feature films, City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster, in the retrospective due to rights issues that have kept them out of American cinemas in recent years (although the PFA did show City of Sadness, at least, in 2010, I'm almost certain The Puppetmaster has not been seen in a Frisco Bay cinema since 2000). To screen these particular films, the PFA would have to keep the showings entirely non-commercial and educational in nature, which means the tickets are all free, and Friday's The Puppetmaster showing will include an introduction and book-signing by Richard Suchenski, a Hou expert who has recently edited a lovely volume of essays on the director.  Initially the plan was to only offer tickets to tonight and tomorrow's showings to Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive members who signed up in advance, but in the past weeks the PFA has decided to offer remaining tickets on a first-come, first-served basis to anyone who arrives at the door starting at 6PM each evening. So head on over to Berkeley and experience a pair of 35mm screenings that, unless some legal wrangling is able to be managed in the near future, are very unlikely to repeat themselves anytime soon.

HOW: The entire PFA Hou Hsiao-Hsien series screens via 35mm prints from here on out.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Movie (1958)

Screen shot from digital transfer of Facets VHS release.
WHO: Bruce Conner made this.

WHAT: Conner didn't bother with warning shots. His first film was a torpedo fired directly at moving image culture as it was in the late 1950s, and honestly as it still is today. Though it wasn't the first film to have been constructed completely out of pre-existing film material (Joseph Cornell's Rose Hobart beat it by 32 years, and Soviet filmmakers like Dziga Vertov and Esfir Shub had preceded Cornell) it was probably the first to do so with such exuberantly rapid editing and biting humor, in tribute to a memorable moment from the final reel of Leo McCarey's Duck Soup. Today Conner's aesthetic feels familiar and perhaps even stale on a single viewing, at least to those of us raised on music videos and popular compilations that "normalize" Conner's then-radical strategies. But multiple viewings reveal more about the film. Kevin Hatch has written:
With each encounter, the rhythm of the editing appears more natural and the shot selection less arbitrary, until the film's logic becomes intuitively evident. With each viewing of the film, we become accustomed to the abrupt breaks between shots and more comfortable allowing them to reveal unexpected formal relationships and trigger involuntary mnemonic associations. What at first appears chaotic comes to seem, with repeated viewing, compulsively ordered.
Hatch spends quite a bit of time going into more detail on A Movie in his book Looking For Bruce Conner, but one thing he neglects to mention are the dissolves that appear in the last few minutes of the film; previously all edits were of the simple cut-and-splice variety that reconcile with Conner's recollections of having used only the most rudimentary tools of "a little splicer and a rewind and a viewer" to make his earliest films. But in 1958 it was possible to instruct a film lab to insert a dissolve into a print when processing it, for a small fee, so it seems likely that Conner exploited this option to create images like the above crossfade from a smoldering volcano to a ecclesiastical coronation.

WHERE/WHEN: A Movie screens tonight at 7:00 at the Pacific Film Archive.

WHY: Though it's hard to find many bright spots in yesterday's election results, I did enjoy a reminder, through a glance at the facebook page of the proprietor of the Black Hole Cinematheque in Oakland, that Bruce Conner in 1967 ran a losing campaign for Supervisor that garnered more votes than some recent winners of Supervisor races have (though at the time elections were citywide rather than district-by-district, and therefore unfair to compare). As I wrote in a 2006 blog on Conner, his campaign speech was nothing more than a list of sweets.

I can think of no better cinematic post-election hangover cure than to see a Bruce Conner movie and a Craig Baldwin movie on the same bill. Baldwin's Tribulation 99 screens after A Movie tonight at the PFA, making a near-complete piecemeal retrospective of the living legend of San Francisco underground curation and filmmaking in the last few months, after terrific screenings of Mock Up On Mu, Sonic Outlaws and more at Artists' Television Access back in September. Tribulation 99 is probably Baldwin's most quintessential and essential film, and he'll be at the theatre to discuss it with anyone who dares to attend.

Tonight's program is part of the PFA's Alternative Visions series of experimental films, which winds down this month with shows devoted to Polish artist Pawel Wojtasik and to recent experimental films made by filmmakers who I'm guessing would probably acknowledge a debt to Conner in their own work. Many of them would likely acknowledge a debt to Baldwin as well, but probably none as vociferously as Linda Scobie, whose playful collage Craig's Cutting Room Floor is a 16mm film-assemblage of just what it describes: the material found beneath Baldwin's feet as he works in the editing room.

These may be the last three strictly experimental film programs at the PFA for a while, as recent tradition has held that the Alternative Visions series has been a Fall-only program with Spring devoted to cutting-edge documentary. With the PFA closing after July 2015, to re-open in a new, more BART-friendly, location in 2016, if the pattern holds it may be a couple years before we get a shot at seeing this kind of material in Berkeley again. Although there are some who would consider Jean-Luc Godard's films (especially his more recent ones) to be experimental films as well, and the PFA promises to continue with their retrospective of his work next Spring (presumably to culminate in his newest Goodbye To Language 3D, which in the meantime premieres locally next week in San Rafael). The current installment of this Godard retro covers his 1982-1994 work, and starts with his masterpiece Passion this Saturday. I'm pleased that a greater proportion of this segment of the Godard series is screening via 35mm prints than did in the last segment focusing on the 1970s. In fact the lion's share of the PFA's November-December calendar is 35mm, including everything in the Hou Hsiao-Hsien series, nearly everything in the Georgian film series that will also continue into 2015, and more than you might expect in the political documentary series entitled I’m Weiwei: Activism, Free Expression, Human Rights.

Of course the PFA is not the only place to show experimental films in the Bay Area; far from it in fact, when there's an organization like SF Cinematheque entering into a particularly busy month including tomorrow's Castro Theatre(!) screening of Andy Warhol's dual-projection epic Chelsea Girls and Friday's YBCA showing of Warhol's Hedy, both with fascinating and eloquent Factory star Mary Woronov in person, its annual art (and film) auction and benefit November 15th, and much more.

HOW: A Movie and Tribulation 99 both screen from 16mm prints in the PFA's own collection.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

To Have And Have Not (1944)

Screen shot from Warner DVD
WHO: Lauren Bacall made her first on-screen appearance in this film, playing Marie 'Slim' Browning.

WHAT: This Casablanca-esque romantic adventure is perhaps not quite as purely entertaining as its 1942 predecessor, but it's arguably "greater", and endlessly more analyzable, as a quintessential Howard Hawks directorial project, as an Ernest Hemingway adaptation (co-written by no less than William Faulkner!), as an expression of American wartime philosophy, and as the genesis of the long romance between its stars Bacall and Bogart, who met on the picture. Here's Manohla Dargis writing in the New York Times about one very memorable moment:
If the movie’s political backdrop tends to go missing in the mists of the Bogart and Bacall legend — they fell in love during its making — it’s understandable given how they steam up the joint. Before teaching him how to whistle, Slim slides into Steve’s lap and leans down to kiss him. “Whaddya do that for?” he says, as if the question needed asking. “Been wondering whether I’d like it,” she says. He asks her verdict. She murmurs “I don’t know yet” before going in for another try. This time, he pulls her close, his hand circling her neck, and they kiss deeper and longer. She stops, pulls back and stands, taking the camera with her, and delivers the film’s other great line: “It’s even better when you help.”
WHERE/WHEN: 7:50 PM tonight only at the Castro Theatre.

WHY: The Castro yesterday revealed the front page of its full October calendar, just in time for the month to begin. It's a typically eclectic mix of Halloween-ish favorites of various kinds, new restorations of classics, 2014 hits in one-night-only "second-run", and memorial tributes to recently deceased film personalities. The latter includes not only Bacall, who stars in six films playing the venue this month (all but one, How to Marry a Millionaire, showing in 35mm prints), but also Richard Attenborough, who directed Gandhi, which screens (digitally) Sunday October 5th. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Harold Ramis already have received Castro tributes this year, but they show up again in October as well; Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man October 22 and Ramis in Ghostbusters October 24th. James Garner has yet to have an official screen tribute in San Francisco this year, but we can look ahead to November 7th when Jesse Hawthorne Ficks screens The Notebook (along with John Cassavetes' Minnie and Moskowitz) for an at-least-unofficial one.

For October, Ficks's MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS series brings a Christian Bale double-feature of Reign of Fire and The Dark Knight on Friday the 17th. Naturally both will be screened on 35mm; the latter being an opportune time to revisit the signature hit by Hollywood's perhaps most powerful film-on-film proponent (with apologies to Quentin Tarantino) Christopher Nolan in advance of his 70mm IMAX release Interstellar (rumored to be the last "real" IMAX film in the pipeline).

As of now the Castro website has not revealed the formats for most films screening after the 17th; we know that Carrie, The Bad Seed, Village of the Damned, Spartacus, Sunrise, and The Fugitive Kind will screen from 35mm prints while Vertigo and Rome: Open City will see their Castro debuts in 4K digital projection, but I'm unsure as yet whether film is involved in the Alphaville/Orpheus double bill October 21st (I suspect no), The Black Cat/The Raven October 23rd (I suspect yes) or 2001: A Space Odyssey/The Tree of Life October 26th (I don't want to speculate). The Bay Area Film Calendar and the Castro seem to be oddly at odds over the October 18th Bernardo Bertolucci marathon; the former indicates only the Italian master's Last Tango in Paris and The Sheltering Sky will be in 35mm, while the Castro's Special Events page adds The Conformist to that pool. The new, seemingly-unnecessary-but-I-suppose-I-should-keep-an-open-mind 3D version of The Last Emperor will screen digitally of course. Joan Chen is expected to be in attendance.

Finally, looking ahead again to November (in this case the 6th), SF Cinematheque is presenting its first Castro event in quite some time, a dual-16mm screening of Andy Warhol's The Chelsea Girls with the hugely-entertaining former "Factory Girl"  Mary Woronov in person, as she will be the following night with Warhol's Hedy at Yerba Buena Center For the Arts. I'm preparing for those screenings by attending tonight's Pacific Film Archive presentation of another Warhol dual-16mm film called Outer and Inner Space; otherwise I'd surely be at the Castro tonight for To Have and Have Not.

HOW: 35mm print, on a double-bill wih Dark Passage, another Bacall/Bogie team-up, but one particularly dear to Frisco Bay hearts as it was actually filmed here.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Screen shot from Kino DVD
WHO: Robert Weine directed this

WHAT: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is huge in cinema history and in my own personal history with cinema. It's frequently (incorrectly) cited as the first horror movie, and its iconic imagery has been borrowed shamelessly by other filmmakers from the silent era to Tim Burton and beyond. With few of its director's other films available for view, it generally frustrates auteurists, especially those highly influenced by the theories of realism put forth by the influential French critic Andre Bazin, who labeled Caligari a "failure" under his criteria for worthy photographic art. 

When I first became interested in exploring silent film history many years, ago, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was one of the first films from the era that made a very strong and immediate impression upon initial viewing. Though I was watching a rather muddy VHS transfer, I loved what I saw, and became a little obsessed. I read about every article or book I could find about it (including David Robinson's excellent monograph), purchased an 8mm print on ebay (my first and ever such purchase, even though I didn't have a projector at the time) and even dressed as the somnambulist for Halloween that year (immortalized in a photograph I've recently cycled in as my twitter avatar). 

WHERE/WHEN: 9PM tonight at the Castro Theatre, presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

WHY: Since my first viewing I've taken a few opportunities to see the film when it's screened in local cinemas (which happens less often than you might expect, actually), and have seen it projected from an even muddier video transfer at the Castro accompanied by the local ensemble Club Foot Orchestra, and have seen a 1950s-era retitled 35mm version at the Pacific Film Archive with Judith Rosenberg at the piano and accompanied by a lecture by film scholar Russell Merritt, who has just joined the board of the Silent Film Festival. 

None of these viewings, or of the DVD viewings I've also experienced in the interim, have been afforded use of a new 4K sprucing of the best original elements. This version premiered in Berlin earlier in 2014, and tonight is the US premiere. It's also the first time I'll be able to view a 4K digital file projected through the Castro's recent acquisition, a 4K projector to replace the 2K one they've had for several years and which had recently developed an "undead pixel" problem (which is even scarier than it sounds). Although I wish the Murnau Foundation would have made a 35mm print available of this new restoration, I'm curious to see what 4K projection at the Castro might look like when applied to a classic film that I'm very familiar with.

Tonight's screening is the capper to a full day of Silent Film Festival shows, the entirety of which have been enthusiastically rounded-up by my friend Michael Hawley of the film-415 blog (which I hope he never has to change to film-628). 35mm screenings for this all-day even include the 11AM program of Laurel & Hardy two-reelers, and the 7PM showing of Buster Keaton's The General with live musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra (who last performed this at the Castro in 2004- I was there and was very impressed by how a percussion-heavy score helps amp up the action-adventure elements of the classic Keaton comedy.) The Alloys' 3PM world-premiere presentation of their new, years-in-the-making score to Rudoph Valentino's allegedly best film Son of the Sheik will be sourced from a DCP, as will the BFI's A Night in the Cinema in 1914 show.

HOW: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari screens as a 4K DCP, with live music by the versatile keyboardist Donald Sosin. I've heard his eerie score for the Kino DVD and am very interested in hearing how he transforms it in a live environment.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Our Man In Havana (1959)

Screen capture from Sony DVD
WHO: Alec Guinness, the versatile English actor who would have turned 100 earlier this year if he were still alive today, stars in this film directed by Carol Reed.

WHAT: I haven't seen this particular Guinness film, but Cheryl Eddy, in a recent article on Guinness, describes it thus:
Guinness is brilliant as an expat whose desire to provide a better life for his materialistic teenage daughter (Jo Morrow) leads him to set aside the vacuum-cleaner biz and accept a gig as a British secret agent. Thing is, he'd rather just sip daiquiris than engage in espionage, so he fakes his way, with luck and imagination, into being "the best agent in the Western hemisphere."
WHERE/WHEN: Today only at the Rafael Film Center at 4:30 & 7:30.

WHY: Our Man in Havana screens as part of a seven-title centennial Guinness tribute that's been running each Sunday since August, and which winds down the next two weekends with new DCPs of his Ealing comedies The Man With The White Suit and The Ladykillers. Of course the irony of Guinness's legacy is that he's by far best remembered for a role he frequently voiced his disdain for, that of Obi-Wan Kenobi in George Lucas's original Star Wars and its two immediate sequels. Though these films have been left out of this mini-series, fans of Guinness as Kenobi will be able to see him on an even bigger Marin County screen on Monday, October 6th, when The Empire Strikes Back (or the 1997 revision thereof, to be precise) is brought to the Cinema Corte Madera by the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF).

One of Frisco Bay's largest remaining single-screen theatres, the Corte Madera is where I first saw The Empire Strikes Back upon its original 1980 release, a still-vivid memory for this then-seven-year-old. I'm a bit surprised to see this Marin-made blockbuster in the line-up, as it just screened the festival in 2010, on the 30th anniversary of its release, kicking off an annual string of Lucasfilm productions revived on some multiple of five years after it's debut (1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark in 2011, 1977's Star Wars in 2012, and 1983's Return of the Jedi in 2013). I was expecting this year to bring a 30th anniversary showing of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or a 25th anniversary of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but it appears the expectations for the 2016 arrival of new Star Wars saga episodes is "altering the deal." The MVFF program guide refers to a "count down" so perhaps we might expect the 1977 Star Wars, which (spoiler alert) features Guinness's Obi-Wan in a larger part, to appear at the Corte Madera next year...

This is one of the many surprises the MVFF program had in store when last week it revealed the full program for its 37th edition, to be held in Mill Valley, San Rafael, Larkspur and Corte Madera from October 2nd-12th. The longest-running and highest-profile of Frisco Bay's "general interest" film festivals outside of the San Francisco International Film Festival, MVFF has built loyal audiences through employment of a successful formula over the years: securing Northern California (and sometimes West Coast or even U.S.) premieres of several major end-of-year awards "hopefuls", most with acting and/or directing talent expected in attendance, bringing a healthy selection of documentaries and unsung independent films, many with local ties, choosing foreign-language films fresh from Cannes and other festivals, and filling out the program with shorts, retrospectives, and the annual "Children's Filmfest" within the main festival. Lincoln Spector of Bayflicks has written a good first overview on his site, and I plan to write more soon myself. In the meantime, look at the list of MVFF films at or near RUSH status for a sense of what tickets to buy in advance if you're thinking of attending this year.

HOW: It's rare for the Rafael to screen 35mm prints these days, but they still have the capability, and will be utilizing it to screen Our Man In Havana. The next print scheduled to play there is of Yoji Yamada's award-winning follow-up to last year's wonderful MVFF selection Tokyo Family, entitled The Little House, which is the only 2014 MVFF title expected to unspool in 35mm.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Berkeley In the Sixties (1990)

Screen capture image from First Run Features DVD
WHO: Documentarian Mark Kitchell, whose most recent release was last year's environmentalism doc A Fierce Green Fire, co-wrote and directed this.

WHAT: Berkeley In The Sixties is a well-crafted, aesthetically conservative film about leftists, radicals, and other key figures in the 1960s social protest movements that have been so strongly associated with the East Bay city's public image ever since. For those of us who know this period only second-hand, it's a concise primer on far-ranging subjects like the Free Speech Movement, Anti-Vietnam War protests, "Hippie" counterculture, the Black Panthers, and the battle over People's Park.  Made when the events were 20-30 years old (imagine, as a parallel, a documentary on the final ten years of South African apartheid released today), its interviews with 1960s activists show a remarkable candor about the relative strengths and weaknesses of their own protest tactics, frozen at a pre-Clinton-era moment. It would be interesting to know if the interviewees (including Susan Griffin, David Hilliard and Frank Bardacke) would have similar things to say today, now that the term "Free Speech" has been appropriated by the Right to mean "money". At any rate, this nearly quarter-century-year-old film has yet to be superseded by another documentary on these topics, as far as I'm aware.

In addition to interviews, Berkeley in the Sixties is constructed of often astonishing archival footage, collected from from rarely-seen films from the period, some by names as well-known as Agnès Varda, David Peoples, Irving Saraf, Lenny Lipton, and Will Vinton. Although I found it odd that Scott Bartlett's 1972 work OffOn was used to illustrate the visual component of a March 1966 Jefferson Airplane concert thrown by the Vietnam Day Committee and later denounced by then-gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan.  The first several archival clips used are not from Berkeley at all, but from early 1960s San Francisco protests that are said to have laid the foundation for the galvanization of UC Berkeley students to fight for freedom of speech on their own campus. The image above is from a remarkable anti-HUAC protest in San Francisco's City Hall in 1960.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 7PM today only at the Pacific Film Archive.

WHY: Tonight's screening, which will be attended by filmmaker Kitchell as well as Frank Bardacke and other activists from the era, launches an important series at the Pacific Film Archive that will last until the end of next month. Entitled Activate Yourself: The Free Speech Movement At 50, this series collects a diverse array of rarely-seen films that together aim to paint an essential portrait of the Bay Area's political roots from a half-century ago or so. Tuesday, September 23rd's show highlights films from the San Francisco Newsreel media collective, as well as Desert Hearts director Donna Deitch's early PP1, which sounds irresistible from the PFA's description to this Steve Reich & John Cage fan. October 9th's Sons and Daughters is one of the especially obscure films whose footage is borrowed for Berkeley in the Sixties: extremely charged documentation of protesters trying to convince young military recruits to turn away from the Oakland Army Terminal where they're being processed on the way to Vietnam. October 14th's program features two sub-feature-length documentaries made by filmmakers with a very different viewpoint from that of the anti-HUAC protesters shown in the image above, and will be contextualized by a UC Berkeley law professor following the screenings.

Most of the series films are from the era itself, but KPFA On The Air by Veronica Selver (who was the editor of Berkeley in the Sixties) is a portrait of the broadcasting fulcrum of politics and culture released 51 years after the station first went on the air in 1949. It screens October 26th with Norman Yamamoto's Second Campaign. Finally, the series ends with the sole non-documentary of the set, Art Napoleon's The Activist, shot on the cheap in Berkeley and released with an X rating the same year as Midnight Cowboy was.

Although this series is certainly of interest to cinephiles and political history buffs from across Frisco Bay, not just Berkeley, most of its films do focus on that city. San Francisco gets its own spotlight in a perhaps-complimentary Yerba Buena Center for the Arts series showcasing activist-oriented films shot on this side of the Bay. Starting October 2nd, canonized independent classics like The Times of Harvey Milk and Chan is Missing rub up against lesser-known films documenting Frisco's key communities, such as Take This Hammer featuring James Baldwin on a visit to Hunter's Point (showing free October 26th) and Alcatraz Is Not An Island, about the "Urban Indians" who occupied the former prison, future tourist trap in November 1969. I'm especially excited by the 16mm screening of Curtis Choy's 1983 The Fall of the I-Hotel, which documented the destruction of the last remnant of a now-almost-forgotten neighborhood known as Manilatown. I've been wanting to see it for years, and I hope to be there among an intergenerational audience of activists and cinephiles, historians and tech workers, landlords and tenants, SF natives and newcomers, all realizing we need to come together to look at this city's past if we're going to understand how to prepare for its future.

HOW: Berkeley in the Sixties screens from a 16mm print

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Fin de Siècle (2011)

Image from artist website.
WHO: Kathleen Quillian made this short animation.

WHAT: The cut-out animation tradition includes some illustrious names: Harry Smith, Stan Vanderbeek, Lawrence Jordan, Norman McLaren, Walerian Borowczyk, Terry Gilliam. More recently even Jan Svankmajer (who turns eighty today) has turned his hand to it. But in the last several years, it feels like women have been creating the most focused and fiery entries into this often disrespected corner of moving image art. Theoretically these kind of films seem comparatively easier to create than some other forms of animation: they don't necessarily require drawing skill or powerful software systems. But what they do require is an intense amount of planning, perseverance, and a knack for conceptualizing interesting movement in the face of limited parameters. Animators like Stacey Steers, Martha Colburn, and Janie Geiser have done wonderful work in the past decade or so, each creating pieces with distinctive thematic and stylistic attributes. Though Kathleen Quillian has not yet amassed a prolific output as these women have, she's working toward that, and her most recently-completed film Fin de Siècle, investigating the pessimistic and superstitious outlooks of many denizens of the late  nineteenth century, deserves to be compared to the works of Colburn, Geiser, etc. as David Finkelstein did in a Film Threat review I shall republish a brief sample of:
Quillian has a sharp eye for creating arresting, off balance visual compositions, and for using simple visual elements to create the sense of wonder and strangeness which permeate turn of the century writings on the occult and the longing to make contact with the supernatural. 
WHERE/WHEN: Screens on a program starting 8PM tonight at Artists' Television Access.

WHY: This month marks the 30th anniversary of Artists's Television Access, or as it usually nicknamed, A.T.A. The venue is celebrating by hosting a panoply of special events this month (and beyond), starting with tonight's "Open Screening" program of work made by current or former A.T.A. staffers including Dale Hoyt, Claire Bain, Mike Missiaen, Karla Milosevich and more, put together by filmmaker Linda Scobie. She writes, "this show is a wonderfully varied mix of the diverse community involved with A.T.A. over the years and a unique experience to see all their films showcased together."

There are too many events at the space for one person to see. Or are there?  A gauntlet has been thrown down to endurance-testing cinephiles with a 30-hour marathon screening of films selected by members of the A.T.A. community (also including Quillian and sound artist Gilbert Guerrero, her collaborative partner on Fin de Siècle and on running the Shapeshifters Cinema in Oakland). It starts 1PM tomorrow, and it's possible to see everything for as little as $1 per hour of viewing. I must admit I'm tempted to try. Later in the month A.T.A. hosts new installments of popular series like the music/performance-focuesd Mission Eye & Ear, the kickoff to the Fall calendar for the Other Cinema series curated by the Mission iconoclast Craig Baldwin, an evening devoted to works by Baldwin himself: ¡O No Coronado!, Wild Gunman and Sonic Outlaws (his latest feature Mock Up On Mu is part of the marathon, appropriately scheduled for the witching hour), and a pair of screenings of work by the Mission's twin filmmaker legends, Mike Kuchar and his late brother George.

In an article at Eat Drink Films reminiscences about the unique Mission District venue have been collected by that site's new editor, Johnny Ray Huston. My own experiences with the venue date back to my earliest awarenesses of it as the most "beyond punk rock" of all of San Francisco's screening spaces, and along with Aquarius Records and Leather Tongue video (the latter now long-since closed although its iconic sign hangs in Bender's) symbolized Valencia Street for me as a teenager in the early 1990s as the mecca for media that I'd never heard of before and doubted I'd ever be cool enough or smart enough to understand. A part of my cinephilia may be rooted in a quest to unlock the mystique of a place like A.T.A., but I think I've learned that this is probably impossible. A.T.A. boggles the mind of everybody, even the people who are closely involved in its continued operation. With all the changes that Valencia street has gone through in the past 30, 20, ten, five, or even two years, A.T.A. is perhaps the street's most unlikely survivor, and for me its most welcome one. If you can't attend any of the screenings this week or month, please consider donating to an Indiegogo campaign determined to upgrade the venue's technological capacity so it can last for another thirty years.

HOW: Scobie notes that tonight "we're screening many different formats from super-8 to VHS, Hi-8, and a hybrid of 35mm slides and digital video. You'll see current works in progress being shown to classic films dating back to the early '90s." I expect Fin de Siècle to screen on digital video.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Popeye (1980)

Screen shot from Paramount DVD.
WHO: Robert Altman directed Robin Williams in his first major motion picture role.

WHAT: Robert Altman directed thirty-six feature films and dozens upon dozens of plays and television episodes, but only one of these was an adaptation of a beloved comic strip character (who had been translated to screen by the Fleischer Brothers as animation nearly fifty years prior). It followed a post-Nashville hitless streak that included some of his strangest (and, some of them, among his best) movies, most notably the so-called "Fox Five": the Bergman-esque Three Women, the caustic comedy A Wedding, the enigmatic Quintet (which could be a good double-bill-mate with Bong Joon-ho's current Snowpiercer), the rock-and-roll romance A Perfect Couple, and the proto-Pret-A-Porter of the naturopathy movement HealtHLongtime Altman collaborator David Levy is quoted in Mitchell Zuckoff's indispensable book Robert Altman: The Oral Biography: "if the five-picture Fox deal left his career in a place where it was on the precipice, this project would be the one that would either put him back on top or he'd be falling over into the abyss."

As it turned out, it became the latter, as Altman spent the following decade-plus persona non grata at Hollywood studios, forced to shut down his own company Lion's Gate (not to be confused with the current outfit), and scrape together television and below-the-radar independent projects (some of them excellent in their own right) until re-emerging with The Player in 1992. This was because of the critical and commercial failure of Popeye upon its opening. However, in a situation that seems impossible to replicate today, Popeye ultimately caught on with audiences starved for big-screen family entertainment, especially at weekend matinees across the country, and ended up, according to screenwriter Jules Feiffer, one of the top ten moneymakers of the year. Today its reputation is in ascendency among Altman fans, although the director always defended it, as at his last San Francisco public appearance at the Castro Theatre in 2003, when he called it his favorite of all his films in response to an audience question that denigrated it. It may be that, as a recent Dissolve article says, producer Robert Evans "bitterly regretted" the film, but in Zuckoff's book he calls it "a work of genius" and "Bob's best work", suggesting that it should be rereleased today.

As for Robin Williams, the star whose suicide this month would sadly be the most likely reason for such a rerelease, here are some of his comments in Robert Altman: the Oral Biography
It's a beautiful film, man. It's done with the same love he made every other film with. He told me later on, "Don't always go with a critical response. Go with, 'What did you do there?'" Yeah, we did do some really great stuff. I think it was just because it was my first movie, it was like the illusion--"I want the studio to make money." [. . .] I think for the first one of of the gate, that's a pretty amazing experience. It's kind of like Apocalypse Now without the death. . . . For your first movie to get the shit kicked out of it, it toughened me up. It's kind of, in a weird way, a gift. It was like, "Hey, now you go off and you work. You're no longer a virgin. You've been in your first battle. it wasn't a total victory but we didn't get slaughtered. So keep going."
WHERE/WHEN: Screens 7:20 tonight at the Castro Theatre, and 4:00 today and 3:00 Monday at the New Parkway in Oakland.

WHY: Popeye is a perfect MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS selection, as it snugly fits head MANiAC Jesse Hawthorne Ficks's neo-sincere philosophy of appreciation of "misunderstood and maligned" movies. Though tonight's Castro screening is surely going to be affected by the spike of interest in Williams following his suicide, it was actually planned (unlike the New Parkway shows) before the star made that tragic decision. So although it's not one of the first Williams tribute screenings here in San Francisco, it will end up being the first at the Castro Theatre, to be followed by eight shows on that venue's newly-announced September calendar. If you click that link you can also see the first programs for October at the Castro, beginning with an October 1st tribute to the late Lauren Bacall, who was tributed beautifully by in this week's issue of Eat Drink Films by Eddie Muller, by way of the vivid description of the circumstances of his 2007 interview with the Hollywood icon (who incidentally starred in Altman's HealtH along with the recently-deceased James Garner; it's been a bad summer for stars of 1980 Altman films.) The back page of the September Castro calendar gives us a bit more information than what's available on-line. More Bacall tribute screenings there will include Key Largo and Harper on October 12th and How to Marry a Millionaire and Written on the Wind on October 19th. Although the Castro now has a new 4K projector for its digital screenings, which will be used to show this weekend's booking of Lawrence of Arabia (I hope this doesn't spell the end of 70mm screenings at one of the few local venues which can theoretically hold them, although I fear it might), I hope that, like most of the Robin Williams tribute showings (all but Popeye and The Fisher King), most of the Bacall screenings will be able to be shown in 35mm prints. No word on that yet, though. UPDATE: Shortly after publication I learned that all the Bacall films will be shown in their native 35mm, other than How to Marry a Millionaire.

As Cheryl Eddy notes in her excellent SF Bay Guardian Fall preview of Frisco Bay cinema options (from which I have finally updated my sidebar of upcoming film festivals, if you scroll up and to the right), the next MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS screening is (a week before previously announced) a September 19th showing of Inside Llewyn Davis (shot on film but sadly unavailable to screen that way, it seems) and a 35mm print of Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner's Daughter. What she doesn't mention (presumably because it was unavailable at press time) are some of the other terrific Castro September options, such as the rarely seen Bob Fosse film Sweet Charity screening in 35mm with the new DCP of All That Jazz September 6th, or a 35mm double-bill of Red Desert and Mickey One Sept. 24, or two prints of Sam Fuller films Park Row and Pickup on South Street, playing with a new documentary by his daughter Samantha called A Fuller Life, on Sept. 28. 

HOW: Tonight's screening is a double-feature with a 35mm print of Sidney Lumet's The Wiz, but Popeye itself will be screened as DCP. The New Parkway's showing will also be digital, as always at that venue.