Sunday, June 26


Still poppin' here in Hell.

Hoo boy! What a shame I was one of less than two dozen people at the Yerba Buena Center's screening of the 1941 phantasmagoria Hellzapoppin' this afternoon. Still, the room was filled with more laughter than I've heard at so-called "comedies" playing to fuller crowds in larger theatres. Especially during the first 20 or so minutes, during which we were treated to the most hyper-hectic vision of the netherworld imaginable, the extraordinarily rapid banter of our hosts, Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, and so many opportunites taken to demolish the fourth wall that you almost expect them to start in on the fifth, sixth and seventh. I'd thought I'd seen the Ur-texts for Richard Elfman's Forbidden Zone when I saw the cartoons of Max Fleischer (particularly Bimbo's Initiation and the ones featuring Cab Calloway). Well, this is most definitely the other one. The remaining hour of the film is almost as wild as the opening. Between outrageous comedy bits from every corner of the imagination, there's a romantic subplot in the style of those found in a Marx Bros. film. But in this case, the gags overwhelm everything, to the point where they cease to feel like gags; they've become the fabric of a completely unique approach to movie-making, only approached by the most illogical moments of Tex Avery and Busby Berkeley. There's also the most incredible display of the Lindy Hop one could ever hope to see on screen. And to think its all directed by H.C. Potter, the man who made the oh-so-stodgy The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle.

It was as if to remind me that "hilarious" really wasn't the right word to use to describe Aki Kaurismaki's Man Without a Past to the friends I showed it to last night. For one, the plot, which begins with a man getting beat up and nearly dying, is simply not a comic plot. It is really taking a classic trope of Hollywood comedy, amnesia, and treating it with seriousness. To a degree. In tone the film is still a comedy, if an understated one. And what I remembered best in the film were its many moments of humor, such as the exchanges between M (the protagonist, played by Markku Peltola) and Anttila, aka "the Whip of God", or the entire sequence revolving around a bank heist. It was good to revisit the film and be reminded of details like the eloquent lisp of M's lawyer, and the skittish demeanor of the attack dog Hannibal. And to appreciate Kaurismaki's eye for composition. Oh, and my friends liked the film anyway, even if they didn't find it "hilarious."

Thursday, June 23


Human/Nature at the Balboa

The opening shot of Werner Herzog's international breakthrough Aguirre, Wrath of God depicts a procession of conquistadors and slaves snaking down the side of a mountain, deeper and deeper into the Andean jungle. The haunting music of Florian Fricke's Popul Vuh seemingly captures the sound a curtain of mist makes as it clings to this thread of adventurers blazing its path toward the inevitable disaster that lies ahead for Klaus Kinski and company. Akira Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala provides a countering outlook on wilderness expedition; the title character maintains a sort of harmony with the Siberian landscape he traverses. Both films are among the most cinematic of the 1970's, and having them on the same double-bill at the Balboa Theatre on Wednesday, June 29 is a rare treat.

Or it would be, except that they're playing as part of a two-week series called Human/Nature that's filled with one creatively programmed double-bill after another. It all starts off tomorrow (and Saturday) with Walkabout and Whale Rider, each a coming-of-age tale from "down under". Sunday pairs the original Japanese versions of two cautionary tales that are more familiar to U.S. viewers in versions mutilated by cuts and/or bad dub jobs: the anime masterpiece Princess Mononoke and kaiju monster classic Godzilla. Other days will feature silent-era documentaries directed by the duo who later made King Kong (Grass: a Nation's Battle For Life and Chang: a Drama of the Wilderness, both on Tuesday, June 28), Himalayan showcases (Saltmen of Tibet and Himalaya, next Friday and Saturday), and even a Sunday (July 1) program particularly suited for families: The Black Stallion and The Secret of Roan Inish. The series will conclude on Wednesday July 6, with a particularly clever paring: The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (with the director in attendance) and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. The optimism for our ability to understand the natural world found in the one film might be the perfect antidote for the pessimism of the other. Or vice versa, depending on which order you might decide to take them in.

Monday, June 20


Pacific Film Archive calendar for July-August

I went down to try to see Porco Rosso and Only Yesterday at the Pacific Film Archive, but both shows were sold out by the time I got there. I was consoled to see the new program calendar for July and August, the first calendar of the post-Edith Kramer era. Looks good so far.

Highlights include:

A Pre-Code Hollywood series beginning with a knockout Lubitsch double-bill on July 2, and including screenings of Freaks, Blonde Venus, and a whole slew of films I've never seen, directed by the likes of Raoul Walsh, William Wellman, George Cukor, etc.

A set of Harold Lloyd films, mostly shown with music tracks on the print, as the screenings at the Castro in August will be. A fortunate exception: the Frisco-set Welcome Danger on July 31 with Jon Mirsalis on piano.

French Cinema Under the Occupation. A travelling series of films selected by Bertrand Tavernier makes its local stop in mid-August. Children of Paradise will be screened twice, along with three double-bills of other films from the era and a screening of Tavernier's Safe Conduct.

There's a lot more too, including an an intriguing series of spy films, F For Fake, and a series called Eyeing Nature that includes films by Jim Trainor and James Benning. Oh and a Louis Malle series.

Saturday, June 18


Catch the Malady

Sitting at home all weekend trying to work the rest cure for my aching throat is also a good excuse to watch movies (and update the blog). Mostly I've been in Criterion-land. I watched The Lady Eve with Marion Keane's commentary track on. I haven't listened to that many DVD commentaries in my day, but this is the most delightful scholarly commentary I've heard. Keane seems about to burst with joy in every sentence she speaks. This is either due to her love of Preston Sturges, or her love of her own analytical insights. Either way its justified in my view, though I can sympathize with those who can't stand her kind of reading, in which every detail of the film can be interpreted as a comment on the nature of filmmaking. I guess I was never forced to sit through a bad version of this kind of analysis in film school so it feels like a breath of fresh air to me. I'd love to hear Keane's commentaries for Hitchcock films.

I also watched the last four episodes of Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage. I'd started out trying to ration them one a day, recreating the way they were originally broadcast, but after the third episode, Paula, I was too sucked in to help myself. Then I watched all the extras. These three-disc sets can be overwhelming!

I also popped in my Region 3 disc of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady in the hopes that watching some of it would inspire me to say something truly insightful about this incredible film before it plays at the Castro Theatre at 9PM on Monday. After having seen the film twice last November it feels like revisiting an old friend, but subtle things I missed before become clearer and clearer each time. Like the very first shot of the soldiers finding the dead body on patrol. It looks like a man, but they're handling it as if it were a wild beast. This is all obfuscated by Apichatpong's deceptively wavering camera which always frames the soldiers' faces and torsos in the center, their discovery never more than barely in the shot.

I only watched about 15 minutes before I decided I wanted to let the film surprise me all over again on the Castro's giant screen. I'm especially excited about letting the "pure cinema" second half of the film immerse me. Look for me in one of the first few rows. That said, so far I disagree with those who call the first half of the film comparatively weak. I think its full of fascinating, beautiful moments and that its contrasting style works in dialogue with the wordless second half. At least, that's what I thought last November. We'll see if I change my mind at all on Monday.

Thursday, June 16

The Joy of Life in Frisco

So as I write this, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival is beginning at the Castro Theatre. Last year was the first time I attended the festival (also known as the Frameline festival to those of us who find the full name a mouthful), and I only saw one screening, Sokurov's Father and Son. I don't know if I'll make it to any of this year's screenings, but I can highly recommend three films that have already shown in town at other festivals and events.

Tomorrow at 1 PM is the single showing of Jenni Olson's The Joy of Life, which was probably my favorite film seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival last month. I had expected to review it in my upcoming report in Senses of Cinema, but the way that piece turned out, I could only squeeze in a brief mention. I think what really happened is that I froze up, like I do in the face of writing about many of my very favorite films. It felt impossible to convey the incredibly moving, vista-expanding, and, yes, life-affirming experience watching the Joy of Life was for me in mere words. Structurally, the film seems so simple: a series of static shots of Frisco locations devoid of human activity, as if to imagine what the city would be like if its inhabitants suddenly disappeared. Pair these images with a voiceover by Harriet "Harry" Dodge, first in the form of the diary of a butch dyke struggling with life and love, then a discussion of Frank Capra's Meet John Doe illustrating the difficulty even great filmmakers have had finding the right ending, and finally, the right ending: a simultaneously historically-founded and extremely-personal plea for the addition of a suicide barrier to the Golden Gate Bridge. Reading that description, I'm sure, isn't going to excite most movielovers. Doesn't it sound like it would be too political, or else too personal, too dry, too empty, too disjointed, too queer, too formalistic, too impressionistic, too weird, or too sad? It was none of those things for me, and I hope people aren't too scared off by descriptions of the film to go see it for themselves.

Perhaps a better way to convey my enthusiasm for the Joy of Life is simply to list a few of the particular things, little things, about it, that combined with an indescribable number of other things I haven't been able to identify yet to make me love it.

1) The shots start out mostly in the Eastern half of the city, streets that I'm largely unfamiliar with myself.

2) One shot shows the backside of the Castro Theatre, where tomorrow's screening is taking place. Actually, the first Meet John Doe reference is during the initial diary section of the film, as the speaker has just returned from a Castro screening of the film. Her date didn't like it, but she did.

3) Eventually, the spires of the bridge begin to creep into the shots. Very subtlely at first, as they sometimes can be spotted in glimpses on a particularly foggy day.

4) The section on Meet John Doe quotes from a review by the great and greatly underrated Otis Ferguson, who was Manny Farber's predecessor at the New Republic before going off to die in World War II. His insights on Hollywood in the 1930's and early 40's are the best of the period, and his writing style is just perfect.

5) Hooray for feature films shot in 16mm! They still exist!

6) I've always felt a real kinship to the Golden Gate Bridge, ever since learning it was opened to the public exactly 36 years before the day I was born. We're both Gemini according to occidental astrology and Oxen according to the Chinese. Living about a mile away for most of my life, seeing it every (clear) day from my favorite lunch spot in high school. The times I'd been confronted with the idea of a suicide barrier my knees would jerk to the common assumptions: "there's bigger things to worry about", or "it would be ugly" or "people would just commit suicide somewhere else." Watching this film convinced me otherwise. And it didn't feel like it was even trying to. Even though I guess it really was. But that doesn't even feel like a manipulation in retrospect, which is even more impressive, I think. I'm fully on board.

Well, that last one wasn't really a little thing I guess. But anyway, the festival's opening film (Côte d'Azur) is over by now and I haven't even gotten to my other two recommendations: Tropical Malady (playing the Castro 9 PM Monday) and Life in a Box (at the Roxie 5:45 on Saturday June 25th). Hopefully I'll write a bit about them before long.

Monday, June 13

It was a pretty good weekend for viewing. Mostly at home, actually, where I watched my sister's favorite Bollywood film Lajja. It turned out to be fairly interesting and fun, though its supposed feminist message is totally undermined (as my sister pointed out) by the last couple reels, especially the final scenes where our heroine, after travelling in seemingly every stratum of Indian society, uncovering injustice to women at every turn, decides to reunite with her lying, cheating asswipe of a husband on his word that he'd reformed. And this is supposed to be the happy ending. sheesh!

More wholly fulfilling was Blue Snake, a video of the making and performance of the original Robert Desrosiers ballet, which was reprised in Robert Altman's 2003 masterpiece The Company. If that film ever were to begin to approach the reputation it deserves and warrant a 2-disc special edition DVD package, Niv Fichman's documentary about this premiere performance of the work would be the ultimate DVD extra. Seeing the ballet performed in full reveals that it was not just the addition of a Van Dyke Parks musical score that makes the Altman film's version distinctive. It looks like the entire ballet is structured in reverse order, as in 1986 the giant opened the piece and the circling snake closed it! I wonder why such a big change was made.

I also watched most of the shorts on disc one of Kino's 4-disc set of Edison films. No truly jaw-dropping standouts, but I always feel like I get a lot out of watching early early cinema like this.

The two in-the-cinema films I saw were both at the Roxie. I saw the first of a weekful of screenings of Adam Curtis's the Power of Nightmares which was fascinating. Hopefully I'll write more on that one. Also the final screening of Evil Aliens which the guy from the (Yet) Another Hole in the Head film festival menacingly threatened any would-be web-writers against revealing details about, which is enough of an excuse for lazy old me not to write a review of the film. Suffice to say that I was quite entertained despite the fact that I'm not particularly interested in the genre. (the splattery alien invasion movie that doesn't take itself at all seriously but has pretty good production values genre, I suppose you'd call it.) It's not quite as smart as Shaun of the Dead but, at least in this uncut version, has more visceral pleasures. It could be the movie that a lot of folks disappointed in Signs were really looking for. Of course I loved Signs.

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