Thursday, June 29


Anxious Animation

Though I'm a fan of his music, and its placement in films as diverse as Fata Morgana and Natural Born Killers, I wasn't planning to participate in last Sunday's Leonard Cohen Blog-a-Thon organized by New York filmmaker/programmer Jennifer MacMillan. But that evening I saw David Enos's animated short Leonard Cohen at Alberta at SF Cinematheque's season-ending collaboration with Jackie Moe and the filmmakers from the Edinburgh Castle Film Night at the Yerba Buena Center. David's a friend, and I adore his films, so I can't resist the opportunity for a belated shout-out. Leonard Cohen at Alberta is like three minutes of a lovingly hand-decorated mixtape that could make any Cohen fan who received it swoon. It's almost as good on a first viewing as the hilarious Jim Morrison entry in Enos's series of pop icon homages: Light My Fire, which played Sunday as well. You can watch another of his animations, a music video for the Casiotone For the Painfully Alone song "the Subway Home" here.

As you can see, David Enos makes films that fit into the subgenre of cut-out animation. I really feel an affinity for these films that tend to blend the beautifully ornate qualities of George Méliès and Lotte Reiniger fantasies with the collage aesthetic of Joseph Cornell and Bruce Conner. They imagine the cinema as a dynamic diorama (sometimes complete with a shoebox quality). Most of my favorite examples of cut-out animation feel like they spring directly from a single mind, and as much as I appreciate the collaborative nature of filmmaking, I also appreciate the particularly personal iconography found in a cut-out piece by masters of the form from the 1960s like Larry Jordan or Harry Smith. An opportunity to discover works by current practitioners of the art comes by way of a brand new release from Frisco-based DVD label Other Cinema DVD called Anxious Animation. Available for rent at Le Video and other fine establishments, it features two films by Janie Geiser, three by her husband Lewis Klahr, three by the Frisco-based team of Eric Henry, Syd Garon and Rodney Ascher, and two by Jim Trainor, an animator who barely uses cut-out techniques but clearly feels an affinity for the style, having curated at least one program featuring Klahr, Martha Colburn, and others.

I'd encountered Lewis Klahr's name but never before his films. The three selections on the disc are Lulu, a commission for a Danish production of Alban Berg's opera of the same name, Altair, the first entry in a series of seven pieces in dialogue with 1950s melodrama called Engram Sepals, and Pony Glass, a later entry in that series which was my favorite of the three. Altair beautifully marries the melancholy Lullaby from Stravinsky's Firebird Suite to magazine advertisement cut-outs, playing cards, astronomical charts, etc, and I think I'd better understand Lulu if I were familiar with Berg's opera, the original play, or at the very least the silent film it also inspired. But I had all the context I needed to appreciate the narrative of Pony Glass: using characters literally clipped from the pages of DC, the piece enacts Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen's bedroom escapades with Lois Lane's sister Lucy and, after a homosexual revelation made much more explicit than I remember from the comic books, various male figures. Klahr's figures cast slim shadows that constantly reinforce the physical two-dimensionality of comic books and of the motion picture image, as well as the literary two-dimensionality of superhero characters and their foils. But Pony Glass does its part to try and flesh Jimmy Olsen out a little (so to speak), like in a moment when Lucy Lane's paper hand tries to grope his naked ass during sex.

Geiser's films, which I'd seen before on a Cinematheque program, also highlight an interplay between two-dimensional and three-dimensional space. Immer Zu's hand-drawn characters resemble icons from film noir classics (e.g. Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity) moving through spaces cloaked by patterned superimpositions and oddly-shaped gobos. This is a world of keyholes, clocks, test tubes and mysterious codes hinting at some kind of plot that the audience is never given the means to unravel. With a soundtrack constructed from snippets of noir themes like Hans Salter's Scarlet Street, the entire nine-minute film has the feel of a 1940s Hollywood dream sequence. Lost Motion constructs a similarly enigmatic mood, not from cut-outs but out of objects you might expect to find in a junk drawer: erector set pieces, miniature park benches, and paint-chipped figurines casting long, dark shadows. The film suggests a clandestine tryst in a foreign locale, but the details are never made clear. Only a few actual cut-outs are animated in Lost Motion, notably several birds (a nod to Joseph Cornell?) observing the action. But whether Geiser uses two-dimensional or three-dimensional objects as her puppets, more than any other filmmaker I know her work is like putting the eye to a deep, dark diorama.

By contrast, the work made by the team of Henry, Garon and Ascher uses a cut-out approach to computer animation (via After Effects), but doesn't involve any real cutting at all. These images exist only on the screen, in the eye and in the mind, not in any physical form. It's quite obvious, as there are no shadows, no light sources, no textures to speak of. Arguably it makes for an even-more self-contained visual universe. The intangibility of the image works well in a tripped-out hallucination like Sneak Attack, an excerpt from the feature-length Wave Twisters with music by Frisco superstar DJ Q-Bert. But in pieces that seem to be attempting visual dialogue with the real world, like in Spokes For the Wheel of Torment, which attempts to animate Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights to a Buckethead song, the approach feels somehow sterile to me. And though their adaptation of a Jack Chick tract, Somebody Goofed, is undeniably faithful to the original source, right down to the word balloon lettering, it's just not cinematically satisfying to have to read lengthy stretches of dialogue on screen. Especially when everything is delivered without a trace of irony, which ought to leave the Jack Chick uninitiated wondering if the filmmakers are trying not just to acknowledge a cult figure, but to actively preach at their audience.

Last but not least, there's Jim Trainor, whose Harmony is one of my favorite new films seen in the past few years. I'd never seen any of his earlier works, but the Anxious Animation DVD includes The Moschops and The Bats. They're along the same lines as Harmony in that they take to an absurd limit the anthropomorphism that lends such appeal to both nature documentaries and animated films. We like watching animals on screen because they're a blank slate for us to project human values onto, especially appealing in moments when our faith in our own species flags. But Trainor's animals describe their behaviors in human voiceovers that, delivered in the first person, are jarringly matter-of-fact. I'm not exactly sure why it's funny to hear a bat say something horrific like, "More and more our nursery smelled like rotten blood," but I definitely laughed. Oh, and his drawings are quite sophisicatedly animated for their crudeness on first glance: check out the way he illustrates the Moschops' breathing patterns, for example.

One final unrelated note: I'm sorry to see that A Clean, Well-Lighted Place For Books really, truly is about to close. It's my favorite Frisco bookstore not named for a Charlie Chaplin movie (City Lights, Modern Times, Limelight), but more importantly it's the bookstore nearest where I work. The saving grace is that apparently Books, Inc. is planning to open their eleventh store on the site. A mini-chain is certainly better than no bookstore at all. But in the meantime, there's a liquidation sale going on, and there's still some decent selections in the film book section waiting to be carried out the door. I noticed my favorite Welles biography Despite the System and a book of Godard interviews still available this morning, for example. The store will be shut for the long weekend after closing tomorrow, but the sale resumes next Wednesday, July 5 at 11 AM.

Thursday, June 22


July and August at the PFA

How many film masterpieces is it possible to absorb in a two-month period? This is the experiment Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive will be performing on its patrons over the next couple months. Between presentations of seven of Kenji Mizoguchi's most highly-regarded films, complementary Janet Gaynor and Frank Borzage retrospectives, and a full slate of other tantalizing goodies from India, Italy, American teen culture and elsewhere, I suspect I'm going to become a familiar face to evening BART riders.

The Mizoguchi films are probably the seven he is best known for in the West. The three for which he won awards at the Venice Film Festival, three years in a row in the early 1950s: the Life of Oharu (Aug. 27), Ugetsu (Aug. 18) and Sansho the Bailiff (Aug. 25), along with three often-discussed 1930's films, Sisters of the Gion (Aug. 11), Osaka Elegy (Aug. 25) and the Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Aug. 30) and his final film Street of Shame (Aug. 25). Each of these has been called a masterpiece by prominent critics, but I feel underqualified to rate or compare them since I've seen them only on VHS tapes of varying quality years ago (and Osaka Elegy not at all). For whatever reason Mizoguchi is often discussed only as a contrast to other Japanese directors, most often Akira Kurosawa, who shared his affinity for the jidai-geki period film. Dudley Andrew, in the BFI monograph for Sansho the Bailiff he wrote with Carole Cavanaugh, quoted Jacques Rivette:
Let the latest champions of Kurosawa withdraw from the match; one can only compare what is comparable and equal in ambition. Mizoguchi alone imposes the sense of a specific language and world, answerable only to him.
I'm excited at the prospect of trying to better learn this language and the rules of this world during the second half of August.

Which of the two films playing together July 1st (and then separately, July 2 and 8) is more closely connected to Mizoguchi? It's a tricky question. Woman in the Dunes is, like so many of Mizoguchi's best, one of the real masterpieces of Japanese cinema. But it's the director of the other film, Days of Heaven's Terrence Malick, who adapted Sansho the Bailiff for an intended, aborted Broadway run in 1994. I really can't get over this pairing. Woman in the Dunes, which I consider one of my favorite films, is screening in a 147-minute "Director's Cut" version I've never seen, and Days of Heaven is one of those titles I've missed several chances to see in various theatres over the years since I've been aware of it, but refuse to watch on video, at least not for my first time. My willpower is about to pay off. The titles are brought together under the shelter of the PFA's A Theatre Near You header, which also is the excuse to show us Barcelona via Teshigahara's Antonio Gaudi (which also plays Frisco's Red Vic August 6-10) and Antonioni's the Passenger on Saturday, July 15.

I won't be attending that, as I'll be at the Castro that evening enjoying Pandora's Box at the Silent Film Festival. But Friday's opening night presentation of Seventh Heaven at that festival can also be considered a preview of two PFA retrospectives: one for the film's director Frank Borzage, and one for its star Janet Gaynor, who celebrates a centennial this year. As excited as I am for the Japanese films I mentioned above, I have to say I find these series to be the real coup of the new program, simply for the volume of essential and/or rare titles being screened. Foremost among the essentials are the three films Gaynor won the first-ever Best Actress Oscar for in 1928: F.W. Murnau's unassailable masterpiece Sunrise: a Song of Two Humans, the aforementioned Seventh Heaven (which open the series together July 21), and the also-Borzage-directed, Charles Farrell co-starred Street Angel (which plays with the silent version of Lucky Star July 22; this one I've never seen and will have to miss again; serves me right for making plans prior to a new PFA calendar release). Other masterpieces of Golden Age Hollywood include Borzage's No Greater Glory (Aug. 12), Man's Castle (Aug. 11) and a Farewell to Arms (July 29). And those are just the ones I've seen before- I'm particularly keen to finally view Moonrise (Aug. 23) and his "German Trilogy" of Little Man, What Now (Aug. 12), Three Comrades, and the Mortal Storm (both Aug. 19) for the first time. And the Gaynor retro is just as full with unfamiliar films to me; aside from her Murnau and Borzage films, the only ones I've seen are a pair of William Wellman non-masterpieces that are a hoot nonetheless: Small Town Girl (Aug. 4) and the original a Star is Born (Aug. 5). I'm particularly intrigued by the chance to see some of her early 1930s Fox films like Adorable and State Fair (July 28); Gaynor's pictures usually get left out of "Pre-Code" film series because her star persona generally confined her to playing rural innocents far removed from the modern Jazz Age women that feel so quintessentially "Pre-Code" to us today. But that didn't prevent Fox's Sunrise from containing an awful lot of modernity in it for 1927. 1933's Adorable (directed by William Dieterle and co-written by Billy Wilder) appears to have a plot comparable to a Paramount operetta from the likes of Lubitch; will it nearly burst with sexual innuendo like the Smiling Lieutenant does?

All the silent films in the Gaynor series will be accompanied by Judith Rosenberg on piano (she'll also be playing for a selection of Winsor McCay animations August 26). She's one of my favorite regular accompanists at the PFA; for example, her interpretation of Mikio Naruse's Not Blood Relations earlier this year really elevated the film, I felt. On the other hand, the Castro was literally made to show silent films with a live organ accompaniment. You might guess where this is headed: with Seventh Heaven slated to play two Frisco Bay venues a week apart from each other, which screening does the cash- and time-pressed cinephile attend? To be honest, I haven't decided yet. Ideally I'll go to both, but realistically I doubt it will happen. What's your vote? The Silent Film Festival screening July 14, or the PFA's screening July 21? Both are among my very favorite local film institutions, so I hope both events are well-attended. I suspect they both will be.

In the meantime, I've been peeking at the Castro's Coming Soon page to see what else might be happening there when the latest printed calendar runs out and the Frameline festival ends this Sunday with Queens. Looks like Joseph Losey's Boom! goes off on Tuesday, June 27 and the Jewish Film Festival, which has its full program now listed on its own site, will run there July 20-27 before heading to the Roda Theatre in Berkeley, the Century 16 in Mountain View, and the beautiful Rafael up in Marin. And I happened to catch by reading the indispensable Michael Guillen's interview with MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS programmer Jesse Hawthorne Ficks that the next triple feature will be a Digital Sex threesome of Weird Science, Heartbeeps and Joysticks on August 25th.

OOPS! 6/23/06: Lincoln Spector of Bayflicks was a much more careful reader of the PFA program than I was. The above paragraph beginning "All the silent films in the Gaynor series will be accompanied by Judith Rosenberg on piano" should actually say "Some of the silent films in the Gaynor series will be accompanied by Judith Rosenberg on piano." She'll be performing live scores to Lucky Star, the short Pep of the Lazy "J" on July 23, and an August 13 double-feature of the Johnstown Flood with John Ford's the Shamrock Handicap, but not the three films Gaynor earned her Oscar for: they were made during Hollywood's transition from silent to sound film, and will be shown with the original soundtracks Fox attached to the prints when they were first released. This, along with an anonymous comment I recieved reminding me that Gaynor once was an employee of the Castro Theatre, makes the hand-wringing over which venue to see Seventh Heaven all but moot: it's gotta be the Silent Film Festival screening with Clark Wilson at the Mighty Wurlitzer! It would be interesting to also attend the PFA screening as a comparison, if I can fit it into my schedule. But there's nothing like seeing silent films with live musical accompaniment!

Also, the Castro has now released the rest of its summer schedule on its website: July highlights not already noted include a double bill of Nick Ray's Johnny Guitar and Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious July 18-19 and a John Kricfalusi Retrospective July 28-29, and August 11-23 brings two truckloads of 70mm films: new prints of Cleopatra, Tron and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, plus 2001: a Space Odyssey, Hamlet, Playtime, and more!

Saturday, June 17


Fear of the Dark

The horror movie is one of the few remaining film genres that can fairly reliably pack audiences into theatres, according to articles like this one. I wonder if a big part of the reason for this is the dependence the genre has on darkness. As nyctophobia is so common among children because of their active imaginations, it may be an instinct to confront (and conquer) buried childhood fears that keeps fans hooked on the imaginings of horror movie directors. And, at least in my experience, only an extremely carefully calibrated home video set-up in a room free of distractions of light and sound can approximate the cinematic void of blackness found in any decent movie theatre. All but the most absolutely absorbing films in the genre lose a great deal of their power to startle, shock, and disturb when viewed within the familiarity of home.

This summer is a good time for discovering or rediscovering alternatives to the re-makes and "family friendly" chillers Hollywood is bringing to multiplexes in Frisco and across the country. You can even build a "history of horror" curriculum, as films from every decade since the development of the talkie are represented. The Yerba Buena Center is holding a 35mm horror series Thursdays in July, including Dario Argento's Four Flies on Grey Velvet July 6 and Donald Cammell's White of the Eye July 27. The Parkway hosts a Thrillville screening of the Incredible Two-Headed Transplant July 13th. The Red Vic shows Night Watch tonight, and 1950's 3-D horror films in late July. Even the Frameline film festival that just began the other night will be presenting some horror in the form of Frameline Award recipient François Ozon's Criminal Lovers at the Roxie June 22nd. And Peaches Christ's 2006 Midnight Mass season at the Bridge begins with the film I've been most wanting for her to program, Night of the Living Dead. It's showing as part of something called "Spooktacular" which appears to be the same program that launched the Castro's first annual Shock It To Me! horror extravaganza last October at the head-scratching hour of 1PM. Much more appropriate is 11:59 PM, June 30, and the next night is one of my favorite midnight movies of all time, Brian DePalma's blood-transfused horror melodrama Carrie. A good night to get some Hawaiian Punch at the concession stand. After this horror blow-out weekend (featuring an appearance by Elvira both nights), the Midnight Mass schedule brings less-scary (or is it just a different kind of scary?) films like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls July 7-8, Showgirls July 21-22, and Death Race 2000 August 5th. Peaches also refrains from screening from video, as has become an increasingly noted practice for midnight movies, except during her annual Underground Short Film Festival (August 20th this year). Video is also how the SF Neighborhood Theatre Foundation's Film Night in the Park will present Hitchcock's post-Kennedy horror template the Birds for free at Union Square September 9th, and classic horror spoof Young Frankenstein at Dolores Park October 7, officially closing out Frisco's extended Summer.

And of course we just completed Another Hole in the Head week at the Roxie, which happily coincided with the week-long break in the Balboa's gargantuan Karloff festival. It wasn't precisely a break, since Karloff's ghost appears in the Spirit of the Beehive, Víctor Erice's stunning, every-frame-like-a-painting meditation on childhood fear and the irresistibility of film images that concluded a run Thursday night. But Erice's masterpiece is certainly something of a stretch as merely a Karloff-related film, like last night's Gods and Monsters which was made twenty years after the star's death. A welcome stretch, as the films add even more diversity to a lineup that's already impressively ranged considering Karloff's image as a horror actor: the theatre's also showing him in comedies the Secret Life of Walter Mitty and the Boogie Man Will Get You (both this Sunday, June 18), gangster films Night World (June 21) and the Guilty Generation, and the tough but nuanced Howard Hawks prison drama the Criminal Code. The latter two will show June 20, accompanied by an appearance from Karloff's Frisco-raised daughter Sara, who last week talked about her father's role in forming the Screen Actors Guild (his union card was #9), debunked his feud with Bela Lugosi, showed home movies (including the only known color footage of his get-up as the Monster in Son of Frankenstein), and answered audience questions between the Mask of Fu Manchu and the Lost Patrol. But indeed the majority of the program is made up of Karloff's horror classics, including all the original Frankenstein pictures that included him in the cast (his first two turns as the Monster play on today's double-bill, while his last, the aforementioned Son of Frankenstein, closes the series June 22 alongside House of Frankenstein, where Glenn Strange donned the monster's costume and Karloff got the mad doctor role), the original the Mummy paired with a lesser-known Egypt-themed film the Ghoul (June 19), and best of all, Edgar G. Ulmer's 1934 teaming of Karloff with Lugosi, the Black Cat (June 21).

On Tuesday, June 6 I caught a triple-bill which showcased the diversity found even within Karloff's horror filmography. First up was the 1936 Frankenstein variant the Walking Dead, in which he gets to play an ordinary, sympathetic ex-con for a while before the character gets unjustly sent to the electric chair only to survive and become a zombified killing machine with a white streak added to his hairdo. As usual, director Michael Curtiz does very well with inherently cinematic setpieces like a shadow-laden jail cell or a piano recital in which Karloff gets to give the evil eye to the men who framed him, but the direction is less inspired when he's filming transitional scenes just trying to move the plot along. And unfortunately, the 16mm print the theatre had secured was judged to be unusable, so the screening was sourced from a 1979 LaserDisc release instead, which softened the deep blacks that undoubtedly should have been present in this German Expressionist-influenced film.

The 35mm black-and-white print for the second film, Robert Wise's 1945 the Body Snatcher, was just about perfect, however. And what a great film, seamlessly stitched together without the dull stretches found in the Walking Dead. It's the tenth I've seen made by producer Val Lewton's RKO unit (the eleventh and last on my checklist is Isle of the Dead, another one starring Karloff that I'd hoped might appear in this series when I first heard about it) during the early-to-mid 1940s. Like I Walked With a Zombie, the Seventh Victim and other Lewtons, it's a thoughtful, classy horror film with an exploitation-style title. In the Body Snatcher Karloff is, if not the source of, than the leech-like enabler of evil in a corner of Old Edinburgh. The third film in the program was a very pleasant surprise: I was expecting to see The Wurdalak, Mario Bava's 41-minute Tolstoy adaptation with Karloff as a vampire hunter bringing his very dangerous work home with him. But I'd come for the last show of the night, and the theatre treated us to the full Black Sabbath (yes, the origin of the heavy metal band's name) triptych it's a part of. Black Sabbath was shown in the Americanized version put together by AIP for a 1964 release, and while the Italian-dubbed version is reportedly superior, this version is surely more appropriate for a Karloff tribute as it features his own voice, not only in the Wurdalak, but in his introductions for all three segments. And it still shows off Bava's highly saturated colors and his visual trademarks: shots framed by lattice works, camera zooms, faces eerily peering through windows, etc. Black Sabbath also was shown in a virtually pristine 35mm print.

Somewhat sadly, 35mm is increasingly becoming a cost-prohibitive option for making and distributing edgy, innovative new horror films these days. I wasn't able to make it to the Roxie for more than three films in the aforementioned Another Hole in the Head festival this year, but two of the three were shot digitally. And, like the problem with viewing horror at home or through a LaserDisc-sourced projection, the digital I've seen still does not reproduce dark enough blacks for my taste. The Blair Witch Project worked in 1999 (I haven't revisited it since) because the digital video footage was convincingly combined with 16mm and carefully blown up to 35mm for its theatrical release, and more importantly because so much of its terror relied on the power of suggestion. But the digital look is a real problem for the Hamiltons, which embraces a 'reality TV' aesthetic seemingly appropriate to its subject matter: a family trying to cope with its special problems (the less you know about the specific horror elements before seeing the film, the better.) Unfortunately, it's just too bright a film to be scary, even when it's really trying to be. Shinya Tsuakamoto's Haze fares better in its use of digital video. Like Blair Witch, much of the horror I experienced stemmed from my imagination, as I concocted all sorts of scenarios to explain the protagonist/victim's claustrophobic predicament. And the extremely closed-in feel Tsukamoto chose to utilize would probably not have been possible to shoot with cameras large enough to hold a reel of celluloid film. I bet the film would be scarier still if screened from a more powerful digital projector than the one at the Roxie, which is perfectly fine for the documentaries its usually used for, but maybe not ideal for a more visceral film like Haze.

I was glad that at least one of the Another Hole in the Head films was shot and presented on 35mm film (in a print that the festival spokesman apologized for as "dark" but I didn't find objectionable). And it was a good film too, combining scares, cultural commentary, and even a few laughs: the Ghost of Mae Nak, the latest riff on a bedtime story known to every adult and child in Thailand. The tale of Mae Naak Phra Khanong, who died in labor while her husband was away at war, but who manifested as a ghost upon his return, has been made into a hit film by the Thai movie industry every few years or so, and since it was as long ago as 1999 that Nonzee Nimibutr's Nang Nak surpassed Titanic as that country's all-time box-office champion (only to be beaten in turn by Prince Chatri Chalerm Yukol's epic Suriyothai in 2001), it's about time for another one. And it makes some sense that a foreigner (British cinematographer-turned-writer-director Mark Duffield) would tackle the next high-production value version; what Thai director would so blatantly ask to be compared to an industry powerhouse like Nonzee?

This was my first time watching a film made in the Thai language by a Westerner, and the outsider perspective definitely leads to certain divergences from what I'd normally expect from a Thai film. In bringing the story into a present-day setting (in which everybody seems just a bit out of date, which matches my experience with certain sections of Bangkok) the film centers on a young couple, Mak and Nak, who find themselves entwined into the legacy of the original Mae Nak when they move into a traditional teak house haunted by an angry ghost. But Mak and Nak do not seem to be aware of the legend, as it gets explained to them (and re-enacted for the benefit of the audience) midway through the film. A universe in which a Thai couple have never heard of Mae Nak Phra Kanong could only be one imagined by a storyteller, but that's okay, as Duffield is a pretty good one and his universe has its own rules. For example, the laws of physics do not necessarily apply to the human body when the opportunity for a cool-looking death scene special effect (and a nod to Yojimbo) presents itself. But, and perhaps it's because I too have experienced Bangkok through outsider eyes, I thought Duffield captured the visual idiosyncrasies of the City of Angels (as the traditional Thai name of the city, Krung Thep, translates to) very well. I got the feeling that he shot scenes at some of the same ferry stops and pedestrian bridges that I passed through myself once or twice, though I know Bangkok is big enough that it's probably not true. I also thought it was interesting that the office of the shady, supernaturally-connected real estate agent was placed in Chinatown, which felt like a rebuttal, intentional or not, to the dozens of Hong Kong films (the Golden Buddha and the Eye being two) in which Thailand is portrayed as a source of crime and/or ghostly activity.

Friday, June 2


49th SFIFF Final Wrap-Up

I can't express how heartening it is to see a new glossy Roxie Film Center calendar on the streets. It's been two years since they printed the last one, and since July of 2004 the only reliable ways to keep up with the theatre's upcoming films have been through the website, newspaper listings, and the occasional Xeroxed flyers. This calendar doesn't tantalize at quite the level I remember from the theatre's repertory glory days in the 1990s, when the theatre seemed to play different pre-code films, foreign masterworks and obscurities, and oddball cult films almost every day. But there are film festivals like Another Hole in the Head (June 9-15) and Frameline (June 16-24). The 48 Hour Film Project happens June 27-29, just in time to prepare for the perhaps-similar Cinemasports 10-hour filmmaking contest that's happening July 23rd as part of the Jewish Film Festival at the Castro. There are also week-long engagements of a diverse array of independent documentaries like Songbirds (today through June 8) and Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel (June 8-15) and features like 4 (playing through June 4) and a trio fresh from the big tent International Film Festival: Iron Island (June 30-July 6), Three Times (July 7-13) and Look Both Ways (July 14-20). Two of these were among the many I was disappointed to miss at the festival, and Three Times was perhaps the title I felt I gave the shortest shrift to by jamming it into my packed festival schedule. I admired it, especially the nostalgic first segment in which a soldier uses his brief period of home leave to track down a pool hall girl he had an unconsummated connection with. But I was simply too exhausted to really appreciate the second silent-film tribute segment or the final segment set in modern Taipei.

Sometimes, especially during the over-stimulation of a large, diversely programmed film festival like the SFIFF, I feel like I'm not enjoying the films I see as much as storing them up for later comprehension. It's a frustrating game because often the most intriguing films are the ones that I never find myself with a chance to view again. It's some kind of paradox that the most easily-digestible films are usually the ones I'm least glad I fit into my schedule. In the past couple of years when I've been charged with wrapping up the festival it has required me to create a large block of space between the last screening and my writing process. I'm extremely impressed with folks like Fernando Croce of Slant, who busted out a cogent and comprehensive wrap-up mere days after the festival finished. Perhaps I should try to sequester myself off from reading such material until after I've completed my own process, but I can't help myself. Reading reports from Cannes has been an irresistible distraction each time as well. I thought that since this year I had the outlet of blogging before and during the fest, perhaps I would be able to somehow circumvent that feeling of blockage. But no, there are still too many films I want to write at least a few words on, that I've been carrying with me for the past few weeks, same as ever. But now I'm about to take an out-of-town trip and I must unburden my load, coherent or not. Hopefully at least a few of the words will be ones you haven't seen before.

I'll start with the hardest one: The Wayward Cloud, which so much has been written on already that it seems almost ludicrous for me to add my two cents, but let me try anyway. Tsai Ming-Liang's latest film left me alternately enraptured, confounded, delighted, and on the verge of offended. I know I wasn't alone on any of these responses (some were over the verge of the latter). Which is why I wasn't surprised that, though festival director Graham Leggat in his Castro Theatre introduction enthusiastically called it the best film in the program and proudly recalled that he had to "fight like Hell" to get the sales agent to let him include it, he restrained his praise in his introduction of its second screening, at the Kabuki. Well, at least nobody either night got up and yelled "fuck you" at the screen like a Brisbane festgoer did (see this outstanding but definitely Not Safe For Work link). The Wayward Cloud has been described as Tsai's "summary" film as it encapsulates themes from all his previous features, but it should be noted that his introduction of pornographic images to his palette charges the film with an acidity very much beyond what he's shown us before. Some have seen it as something of an anti-porn manifesto, and the way the film's final sequence assaults the audience, pointing up the width of the chasm between our reactions to "fun, enjoyable" porn and truly disturbing images makes me inclined to agree. But I remember how I felt his 1997 film The River was also a critique of the way filmmaking wrecks actors' bodies and souls and have to consider that the Wayward Cloud is in part using porn as a blunter, more apparent hammer to drive the same nail. Does Tsai hate his profession?

I don't think Robert Altman does. You can tell from his a Prairie Home Companion that he still is enjoying the process of making movies, perhaps as much as ever. A number of critics have stacked the deck against this film by saying it doesn't measure up to treasured classics like Nashville. Let me try to reshuffle a bit by saying I think it's almost up there with the Company. Which, if you think that's faint praise, is on most days my favorite Altman film for its approximation of a cinema verite documentary feel yet adherence to a very satisfying narrative form. Altman's cameras in a Prairie Home Companion take a different approach, gently weaving around the performer subjects, always uncovering a new angle. It makes for a more self-conscious picture, for sure, but then you wouldn't want to be lulled into forgetting you weren't just listening to the radio but watching a movie. I can't wait to watch it all happen again after it opens June 9th, and I hope it's as big a hit as any of the recently-Oscared director's films. Is the nation ready for the "Bad Jokes"?

A Prairie Home Companion is mostly bound to the stage of the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul, and it's the strongest of a loose trilogy of Minnesota films I uncovered at the festival. The Bukowski adaptation Factotum and the documentary Al Franken: God Spoke were perfectly serviceable films but they both fit into that easily-digestible category I mentioned above. Factotum a little less so, as it concerns a circle of misfits wallowing in liquor and low-self-esteem, and sometimes veers into unsettling territory. But mostly it's a film built on the wit of its screenplay and likely its original source (which I've not read), though director Bent Hamer does a good job using the unglamorous Minneapolis locations to help capture a mood of languishment for his actors and for Matt Dillon's detached voiceovers to exist in. As for Al Franken: God Spoke, I enjoyed it but nothing about it stuck to my ribs.

I got more out of a pair of political documentaries that showed me things I didn't already know a lot about: Iraq in Fragments and the Dignity of the Nobodies. The latter is my first taste from a venerated filmmaker I've been wanting to discover for myself for years: Argentina's Fernando Solanas. The film is unsurprisingly self-assured. Solanas provides a narration, but sparingly, giving most of his information through images of his country's political turmoil, and through interviews, not with self-proclaimed experts sitting in comfy living rooms, but people on the front lines of poverty and protest: women who organize disruptions of auctions to sell off the land of cash-poor farmers at a pittance, operators of a makeshift soup kitchen in a destitute district outside Buenos Aires, Patagonian workers who formed a collective when a corporation shuttered their ceramics factory, etc. In the end the film sent viewers out the theatre doors infected with optimism for people power.

Perhaps the images in Iraq in Fragments wouldn't have been so astonishing to me if my television was hooked up to anything other than my VHS, LaserDisc and DVD players, but I rather doubt it. Director James Longley took the completely unembedded route in finding subjects to follow among the wreckage of this broken country. The film is split into three segments, the first follows an 11-year-old in Baghdad, the second a political movement in the Shiite South and the third another youngster in the Kurdish North. Fragments, indeed. Though I remember Longley's previous Gaza Strip being an example of pure vérité, Iraq in Fragments is not, as the main subjects of each fragment narrate their personal outlook as a counterpoint to the images of their daily life shown on the screen. As Gregg Rickman of the SF Weekly succinctly noted, it "plays like a Terrence Malick art film".

But my very favorite documentary of the festival was Alan Berliner's self-examination Wide Awake. Berliner traces his struggles with his insomnia, which he recognizes as incompatible with his family life, yet a part of him wants to cling to as a cradle for his creativity. He regularly stays up until just before dawn editing and organizing a vast archive of images, sounds and artifacts (which he takes the viewer on a hilariously manic tour of in one brilliant sequence.) It seems to be a technique he uses to cope with the over-stimulation of his New York lifestyle, but it yields real artistic dividends; the level of accomplishment displayed in this film is sufficient proof. Most remarkable is the way he uses simple editing techniques like image repetition and archival clip montages to simulate sleeplessness, dreams, and other recreations of the mind's eye. Berliner called himself a natural collagist in the post-film q-and-a session, which made one scene with his young son all the more poignant. After spreading hundreds of photographs out on his studio floor in a circular pattern, he places the toddler in the center and films how he reacts to the images surrounding him. Is this a genetic test to see if little Eli Berliner shares his father's proclivity for collecting and juxtaposing? And if he does, is there any extreme Daddy can go to in guarding his son's sleep patterns that won't be counteracted by an inclination to follow in his wakeful footsteps, succumbing to the modern world of constant media barrage?

Shifting gears to a more quietly ruminative film, I looked at Cycling Chronicles: Landscapes the Boy Saw. I was intrigued by the description in the program guide, but I didn't expect that reading it would leave so few surprises for the film to unveil. The scenes of a young cyclist riding around Japan turned out to be little more than just that: shots of a cyclist riding around Japan, and they comprised the majority of the film. They were punctuated by a few encounters with villagers and flashbacks to things happening (click the above link if you want to know what they all are) but no sense of mystery or mood of the kind that pervades the most deceptively "boring" films that I adore. The film does include some overt political educating that David Walsh was able to appreciate, but all I could think was such high-minded sermonizing could be more effectively assimilated by reading a good book or article, and my uncharitable side wondered if its inclusion was director Koji Wakamatsu attempting some kind of atonement for his career making pornographic "pink films." Still, it's the kind of thing that should be seen at festivals and I in no way begrudge its inclusion, only programming consultant Roger Garcia's overly detailed summary. I wished I'd seen more of Mr. Garcia at screenings this year as his introductions are usually some of the wittiest and most illuminating at the festival, and I really liked what I saw of his selections for the IndieAsia spotlight (Looking For Madonna and especially a Short Film About the Indio Nacional, which I wrote a bit about here), but I wonder if I might have gotten more out of Wakamatsu's film if he'd been a bit more restrained about certain plot points in his write-up.

In trying to evaluate the festival as a whole, I'm trying to resist the temptation to remember the names of films I'd hoped would be programmed but weren't, and all I have to do is recall that I couldn't have fit anything more into my schedule without taking time off of work, and still I missed out on titles I'd hotly anticipated like Bashing and the Lost Domain. As for the new films I did see, the 49th SFIFF acquitted itself nicely for the most part, with only a few real disappointments. Certainly better overall than last year, though hopefully not as good as next year's golden anniversary edition. That's right, I'm expecting continuous improvement, even in the face of reluctant distributors and sales agents, mounting costs, and increased competition (perceived or real) from the growing DVD import market. Show more films that exhibit the unique essences of celluloid, like the Regular Lovers and the Sun did this year. Fly in bold filmmakers who can lucidly talk about their work, like Raya Martin and Alan Berliner did this year. Put a little higher priority on retrospective selections, and keep up the good work with the short film programs and the experimentation in new directions (like the Kinotek spotlight). I'll be checking in again this October when the Film Society tries its hand at putting on an Animation Festival called Supercollider. But right now, I'm on the next plane out of of Frisco. Back soon, I promise.

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