Tuesday, August 29


Fall in

The SF Film Society's newest foray into year-round programs, the SF International Animation Showcase, will be running October 12-15 at SFMOMA, and the lineup for the four programs is nicely diverse. The October 12 selection of Bong Joon-Ho's the Host is the one I'm most looking forward to; this monster movie from the director of Memories of Murder has absolutely torn up box office records in South Korea in the past month or so, after a strong critical showing at the Cannes Festival. Its selection is a welcome acknowledgment of the dissolving barrier in public consciousness between animation and live-action films, and also perfectly compliments this year's selection of the giant ant movie Them! for the fifties sci-fi free outdoor screening in the Presidio the Film Society puts on every year (this year: September 30). Saturday afternoon, October 14, will bring two programs of animated short films, and the final screening of the weekend will be an October 15 matinee of another modern tribute to 50s sci-fi, Brad Bird's 2-D animation the Iron Giant.

Speaking of animation, Other Cinema has announced its first screening at ATA for the fall and it's an exciting one: the films featured on the recent Anxious Animation DVD release will be shown in their original 16mm format on Sep. 16. A chance to ee Janie Geiser films, among others, on celluloid is an occasion not to be missed! Also, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts promises a screening of Karel Zeman's the Fabulous Adventures of Baron Munchausen Oct. 4 amongst its Fall offerings. Moving away from animation, their on-line calendar reveals that, among other relative rarities, Dennis Hopper's the Last Movie will screen Oct. 20-21. And a few SF Cinematheque Sunday programs have been announced, most notably an October 22 evening of Bruce Baillie's early films (including On Sundays and Mass For the Dakota Sioux) with the artist in person.

Bill Basquin of the Film Arts Foundation has curated a free film series to be screened at the SF Public Library's Koret Auditorium on Thursday evenings in September, in conjunction with the third annual Architecture and the City festival. There's a program of experimental shorts, a 1960 Kirk Douglas feature (Strangers When We Meet) and a pair of documentaries. Probably of greatest interest to Frisco cinephiles, whether or not they remember attending Market Street triple bills themselves, is Christian Bruno's short Strand: a Natural History of Cinema, which plays with Scraphouse September 13.

The Roxie has a new printed calendar for the Fall, dominated by new documentaries like loudQUIETloud: a Film About the Pixies (Sep. 29-Oct. 5) and Black Gold (Nov. 10-16). The Blues Festival has paired two hour-long docs, the recent Muddy Waters Can't Be Satisfied and Les Blank's joyful (and poignant) 1977 Mardis Gras classic Always For Pleasure, for five days of screenings at the Mission venue September 22-16 to coincide with its day-long concerts that weekend. There are also a few narrative features on the docket, like the David Mamet-scripted Edmond (Sep. 15-21) and the 2005 Venice prize-winner 13 (Oct. 13-19). And of course the venue hosts film festivals, this time around the Arab Film Festival Sep. 8-14 (which then moves to the California in Berkeley and the Camera 12 in San Jose) and the United Nations Association Film Festival on October 22 (a preview for the UNAFF screenings at Stanford University October 25-29).

Check out the special events at the Parkway if you haven't lately. Pretty much something for everybody in the next couple of months there.

The Bernal Heights Outdoor Cinema 2006 season is about to begin. This Saturday, September 2, marks the first of four sundown screenings of locally-made films at neighborhood outdoor venues. This Saturday's screening at Bernal Heights Park will include Jay Rosenblatt's I Used To Be a Filmmaker and Michael Franti's I Know I Am Not Alone.

Last but not least, the Castro's printed calendar reveals several enticing treats not mentioned in this space before. (What it doesn't include is the 8PM August 31 70mm encore of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World). I hope that the October 10-11 screening of the Girl Can't Help It is not the only taste of Tashlin Frisco will be getting (the animation and live-action director has been the subject of full-fledged retrospectives in Chicago and New York this summer). The full Dual System 3-D Series schedule has been revealed to include, among other films, Andre De Toth's House of Wax October 15 in case you, like I, missed out on last year's presentation. And Jesse Hawthorne Ficks will be bringing two MiDNIGHTS FOR MANiACS Friday night triple-bills in October: a "Walking Dead" night capped by They Live! on the 6th, and a 80s 3-D night finishing with Friday the 13th Part 3: 3-D on, you guessed it, the 13th. Which segues DJ-perfectly into the Cripsin Glover retrospective beginning on the 20th with his role in Friday the 13th: the Final Chapter. A Grindhouse double-bill including Fulci's the Beyond on the 30th is preceded Oct. 27-29 by a second annual Shock It To Me! horror series whose 1960s-centric titles have been announced on a myspace blog. Of particular note is the Oct. 29 Mario Bava pairing of Black Sunday and Black Sabbath in the original Italian with English subtitles.

And finally, I've just done some tinkering with my blogroll, hopefully making it more sensibly organized (please let me know if I'm off-base on that). Given that I don't have the time to post every day (sometimes not even every week, unfortunately!) I want to draw attention to other bloggers, especially locals writing about film screenings in the area that I either overlook or under-report. Michael Guillen of The Evening Class, for example, has written excellent pieces on recent screenings I've attended at the Pacific Film Archive: Ugetsu Monogatari in the Mizoguchi series that wraps up tomorrow evening, and John Canemaker's presentation on animator Winsor McCay. A recent addition to the roll is Richard Hildreth's Supernatural, Perhaps -- Baloney, Perhaps Not, which if it keeps up as it's been going, should become as essential a weekly (or more frequent) stop as Lincoln Specter's Bayflicks. And then there's all the rest, including the dailies: sf360 and Greencine. What a boon these sites are to my cinephilia!

Monday, August 21


Friz Freleng-For-All

Welcome to the Friz Freleng Blog-A-Thon, in celebration of the late animation master's 100th (or is it 101st, or 102nd?) birthday. The picture to the right is a caricature of Friz from the 1952 Chuck Jones cartoon the Hasty Hare. Links to other sites participating in the occasion will be listed at the bottom of my long-winded post. Thanks to everyone for participating! I think it's wonderful to have such a collection of writings on Freleng in one place on the anniversary of his birth!

I'm not an animator or an animation scholar, but I love to watch classic cartoons, and sometimes try my hand writing about them. Knowing that writers far more practiced than I can sometimes get their extremities caught in painful, embarrassing traps when trying to reach for analysis of cinematic topics outside their realm of expertise (Mick LaSalle being a recent example) might make me hesitant to write on the form. But, though I'm still in the beginning steps of understanding the animator's craft (a term I use because it parallels the commonly-used "actor's craft", not to imply that animating or acting are unartistic endeavors), I hope I have something to contribute to a discussion of cartoons, if only an expression of my passionate belief that the best are as essential as the acknowledged great works of the cinema.

One of the film critics I most admire, Manny Farber, was among the first non-specialists to treat the Warner Studios' cartoons as an important topic of discussion, with a piece published September 20, 1943 in The New Republic called "Short and Happy." It's a brief, six paragraph article, but it does a good job describing the amoral appeal of the Warner house style in the early 1940s when compared to the growing tendency of Disney (the only cartoon studio to have received widespread critical attention at that time) toward virtuous uplift. In 1941 Preston Sturges had made a similar, if perhaps unintended, critique of Disney's transformation by using scenes of pure slapstick from 1934's Playful Pluto in his Sullivan's Travels as the catalyst for the film director's conversion from would-be educator to entertainer, reversing Disney's path during the period. Farber praised Merrie Melodies for being "out to make you laugh, bluntly, and as it turns out, cold-bloodedly." The problem with his praise in the original article, however, is that it now seems rather misdirected. Repeatedly Farber gives the credit for the cartoons to the producer Leon Schlesinger and not any of the directors to whom we now know he gave relatively free creative reign. This is probably why, by the time "Short and Happy" was placed in the 1971 Farber collection Negative Space, it had been edited to attribute the cartoons' singular qualities to Freleng, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, and Robert McKimson. But the re-edit causes more problems than it solves, as by bringing McKimson into the equation Farber awkwardly conflates two eras of Merrie Melodie-making: 1940-42, when Jones, Freleng and Avery were directing but McKimson was still an animator, and the period that stretched from 1950 until the early 1960s, when nearly all the studio's cartoons were directed by Jones, Freleng or McKimson. An added paragraph constrasting the directors' styles feels like it belongs in a different piece; it was that paragraph's reference to the 1958 cartoon Robin Hood Daffy that made me feel the need to look up old issues of The New Republic on microfilm.

Sad to say, Freleng probably emerges from Farber's 1971 (or earlier?) re-edit worse off than if he, like Robert Clampett or Frank Tashlin, hadn't been mentioned at all. In the new paragraph, Freleng is simply described as "the least contorting" while Avery gets to be called "a visual surrealist" and McKimson "a show-biz satirist", with Jones receiving several sentences of praise all to himself. At least Freleng cartoons like the Fighting 69 1/2 and Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt get singled out for praise, but the latter is misidentified as a McKimson product in the re-edit. Perhaps the most enduring line Farber uses to describe the cartoons is: "The surprising facts about them are that the good ones are masterpieces and the bad ones aren't a total loss." In the original article three examples of "good ones" are identified as The Case of the Missing Hare, Inki and the Lion (both Jones) and Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt. But the lone counter-example is the "poor" Wabbit Who Came to Supper which is saved by a single gag (where Bugs tricks Elmer into celebrating New Year's Eve in July) from implied "total loss"-hood. I disagree; that's one excellent 'toon!

But here I am, already on the fifth paragraph of this post, and I still haven't gotten around to saying what it is about Freleng that made me want to initiate this Blog-a-Thon in the first place. The above stuff is important, I think, because Farber is a deservedly influential critic, and his damningly faint praise of Freleng's talents in the revised "Short and Happy" has probably held some sway over the many, many readers of Negative Space in the years since its publication. It, or other conventional wisdom like it, certainly held some sway over my own opinions of Warner cartoons when revisiting them as an auteurist-minded adult. I took the genius of Avery and Jones almost for granted, and it was Bob Clampett's extraordinarily distinctive (almost always MOST contorting) style that first caught my attention as something of a "new discovery" for me. But gradually I began to appreciate Freleng more as well, and now I think he among all the Termite Terrace directors most exemplified this original Farber quote, contrasting the studio's artistic method against "insipid realism":
It is a much simpler style of cartoon drawing, the animation is less profuse, the details fewer, and it allows for reaching the joke and accenting it much more quickly and directly: it also gets the form out of the impossible dilemma between realism and wacky humor.
Increased realism has been a constantly recurring ambition of animated and live-action filmmakers alike. The Warner cartoonists were not immune; most notably, Jones started his directing career attempting to draw simulations of the natural world in films like Joe Glow the Firefly. Avery would often take a scene to the technological limit of cartoon realism, then demolish that limit with a gag drawing attention to the cinema-unreality of any filmed image (the hair-in-projector gag in Aviation Vacation being a quintessential example.) Clampett, on the other hand, fought against tendencies toward cartoon realism, and usually ended up with an anything-goes cartoon universe of wackiness. What Freleng would do in his most effective cartoons was something else: he'd create a gag that, if not realistic, would at least be performed by his characters as it would be if they were vaudeville actors. Then he would repeat the gag to the point of ridiculousness, altering time and/or space to increase the impact of the humor, and creating a sense of inevitability that is funny in a completely different manner than the unpredictable hilarity of a Clampett cartoon. The Wabbit Who Came To Supper follows this pattern, as do many of the Sylvester-Tweety cartoons, but the most perfect distillation of the principle is probably the 1949 Yosemite Sam/Bugs Bunny face-off High Diving Hare.

As Greg Ford notes in his commentary on the Looney Tunes: Golden Collection disc on which this short appears, High Diving Hare has a long set-up. It's true that there is often some gag-light "dead space" in a Freleng cartoon, but at least in the case of this one, the set-up is necessary to build the gag premise that will so pay off in the second half of the cartoon. The premise, for those of you who may not have seen the film before but want to see me overexplain it (I really don't recommend that; please watch it right now or skip to the end of this post where the links to other bloggers are) is that Bugs is presenting a variety show at an Old West Opry House. Yosemite Sam's favorite daredevil Fearless Freep is on the bill, inspiring the diminutive gunslinger to lay down a pile of cash and plop down right in front of the stage. Carl Stalling's musical contribution increases the tension as the camera makes a vertical pan (Paul Julian's background using a perspective effect to simulate a live-action tilt) up the impossibly high ladder to the platform Freep is going to dive off of. But if Sam isn't impatient enough already, he really loses his temper when Bugs interrupts a lengthy introduction to accept a telegram from the weather-delayed diver. Of course, all this set-up isn't to make Sam's anger more believable; with Yosemite you believe his anger from the first cel. It's to create a situation in which Sam doesn't want to just kill Bugs in his usual way, but to motivate him to force Bugs up the ladder to the platform so he'll dive in Freep's place. Freleng and his crew don't have a pair of six-shooters that can make Yosemite climb that ladder himself; they have to construct and draw everything.

The first dive takes over a minute to unfold, but each second is perfectly used. First there's the climb, backed by Stalling's chromatically-rising violins, then acrophobic (or so he says) Bugs inching to the edge of the diving board, then clinging to Sam and to the board to avoid the fall. When Sam aims his guns and orders, "now, ya varmint! dive!" it seems like the moment of no return. But of course it's really the perfect moment for a Bugs switcharoo. He convinces Sam to turn around and close his eyes while he puts on his bathing suit (an absolutely absurd modesty since Bugs is naked to begin with!) With his adversary not looking, he's able to rotate the board around an imaginary center, then use sound effects he must have learned from Treg Brown to bamboozle Sam into thinking he'd actually jumped into the bucket of water at the bottom of the ladder, when he's actually just landed on the platform, only a few feet lower than where he started. What happens next is absolutely priceless: Sam expresses genuine respect for the "critter", and in his state of shocked admiration he steps off the board into a stagebound freefall.

I'm not going to detail each of the subsequent 8 times Yosemite tries to force Bugs off the diving board and ends up the fall guy himself, but in each iteration of the gag the climb-trick-fall cycle gets briefer than the previous, except for the third, and the ninth and last fall. Sam's third ascent takes a few seconds longer because it's the film's first real break with the rules previously established in the cartoon's exaggerated but thus far logical universe. When he steps out on the board, unable to figure out where Bugs went, the audience is privy to the knowledge that he's standing upside-down on the underside of the board. Or so we think; as soon as Bugs informs Sam that he's the one upside-down, he falls, illustrating the principle that Looney Tunes characters can do anything until they realize they've done something they can't. By falls number seven and eight Freleng leaves the camera trained on the middle of the ladder so that we see a sopping wet Sam climbing up, and soon enough falling down and making a splash, but we aren't shown what Bugs is doing up there to keep Sam's water wheel of torment turning. The moment when we expect to see him fall again, but instead the silence is broken by the sound of sawing, is a hilarious friction between anticipation and surprise. The resolution is perfect because it's simply too easy. When Michael Barrier in Hollywood Cartoons claims that "gags in Freleng's cartoons tend to be of equal weight, so that a cartoon simply stops when its time is up" he either isn't considering High Diving Hare or else he's thinking specifically of big, complicated, finishes like the ones Jones supplies in most of his Road Runner or Sam Sheepdog cartoons. High Diving Hare's "biggest" gag is the first dive, and the others are like ripples on the surface, keeping the laughter generated from the initial splash going and going.

This is all just how I see it. Please feel free to disagree with any or all of my train of thought by leaving a comment below!

Freleng appreciators in the Frisco Bay area will want to know that the Balboa Theatre will be holding a tribute to the director sometime this Fall, including a screening of Ford's 1994 documentary Freleng Frame-By-Frame. (I'll post the precise date when I learn it through the theatre's informative weekly newsletter, available on the theatre website and through e-mail.) In the meantime they're screening a (non-Freleng) cartoon before each showing of Little Miss Sunshine.

Once again, thanks to all the participants in this Blog-A-Thon! If you've written something you'd like me to link, please e-mail me or leave a comment. Here are the links I've collected so far; they'll be updated several times throughout the day:

Adam Koford at Ape Lad.
Akylea at Robots cry too (en Español / in Spanish).
alie at blogalie (en Español / in Spanish).
Brad Luen at East Bay View.
Brendon Bouzard at My Five Year Plan.
Craig Phillips at Notes From Underdog.
Dave Mackey.
David Germain at david germain's blog.
Dennis Cozzalio at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.
Dennis Hyer at Atlantic County Cartoons.
Gir at Gir's room with a moose.
Harry McCracken at Harry-Go-Round.
J.E. Daniels at the Adventures of J.E. Daniels.
Joe Campana.
Josh at jazz::animated.
Kurtis Findlay Burnaby at animated toast!
Michael Guillen at The Evening Class.
Mondoxíbaro (en galego / in Galician).
Peter Nellhaus at coffee, coffee, and more coffee.
Richard Hildreth at Supernatural, Perhaps -- Baloney, Perhaps Not.
Sean Gaffney.
Stephen Rowley at Rumours and Ruminations.
Steven at The Horror Blog.
Ted at Love and Hate Cartoons.
Thad Komorowski at Animation ID.
Thom at Film of the Year.
Tom Sito at Tom's Blog.
Xocolot (en Español / in Spanish).

UPDATE 8/22/06: Just wanted to point out that Wade Sampson published a MousePlanet piece on Freleng last week in honor of the centennial as well.

Also, thanks to Cartoon Brew, Greencine Daily, La Vanguardia and other sites that spread the word about the Blog-a-Thon. With more than two dozen officially participating sites, I'd call the day an unqualified success!

Friday, August 18


Castro, PFA, etc.

Just a few items I had to get out there before Monday's Friz Freleng Blog-A-Thon:

I haven't seen the Castro's latest printed schedule, but the theatre's Coming Soon page has a lot of information you may be interested in. One item not on the page is Frisco's first Canine Film Festival October 7-8, featuring everything from The Adventures of Milo & Otis to Best in Show and even a brand-new Mongolian import the Cave of the Yellow Dog (from one of the directors of the Story of the Weeping Camel) and a program of Wallace and Gromit shorts (like a Grand Day Out, pictured). But there's also a Bresson double bill of Au Hazard Balthazar & Mouchette August 29, a silver-screen, dual-projector 3-D Film Festival October 13-19 (including a day of Creature From the Black Lagoon and its two sequels October 14), a Crispin Glover festival October 20-22 to go along with his in-person (the only way he allows it to be shown) screenings of his directorial debut What Is It?, Viva Pedro, and more. Currently the theatre's in the midst of a popular 70mm film series, which has had one film rescheduled: the new print of the 1963 Cleopatra's screening was postponed until August 21.

Patrice Chereau's Gabrielle was the selection at the 49th SFIFF that gave me the most pleasure without having been able to fit it into my schedule. (Its sole Frisco screening was the same night as the Werner Herzog interview). Every time I read or heard the title, the guitar riffs of the hard-driving Ween song that as far as I know has nothing to do with the film were brought to mind and lifted my mood. It still happens. Now I plan to finally see the film, as it opens at the Roxie August 25th.

The Pacific Film Archive, still chugging along with its Borzage and Mizoguchi retrospectives, has now readied its new September-October calendar. In addition to spotlights on Ousmane Sembene, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, and artist-in-residence documentarian Ali Kazimi, there's a Steve Seid-curated Wednesday series on Pirates and Piracy that transports us from classic Hollywood swashbuckling (Minnelli's the Pirate Sep. 13, Tourneur's Anne of the Indies Sep. 20) to modern-day takes on robbery of things not-bolted-down (Craig Baldwin's Sonic Outlaws Sep. 27, He Jian-jun's Pirated Copy Oct. 25) with lots of short subjects buried in the booty. A Sunday (and occasional Thursday) series called The Mechanical Age is an excuse to see great films celebrating and criticizing mechanized modernity by silent clowns (Chaplin, Keaton, Charley Bowers), Soviet montage masters (Eisenstein, Vertov, Tsekhanovsky) French humanists (Renoir, Malle) and too many others to list. There's also a Syrian Cinema spotlight, an Australian silent film the Sentimental Bloke Sep. 17, the usual Tuesday night Alternative Visions experimental film series, and the always-tantalizing A Theatre Near You selections, this set distinguished by two screenings of Chris Marker's the Case of the Grinning Cat along with his Frisco Bay short Junkopia Oct. 27-28, and a September 1 double bill of Bigger Than Life and Blue Velvet that should provide a comforting reinforcement to anyone declining to spend their Labor Day weekend in suburban America.

Lastly, every year I try to attend at least one local film festival I've never been to before. Last year it was the Arab Film Festival, which has just announced the lineup for its 10th Annual program, Sep. 8-17. This year I'm promising myself to finally attend the Madcat Women's International Film Festival, which also celebrates its 10th year of existence and runs September 12-27. There are 12 different programs, nearly all of which are pretty appealing to me, but I'm perhaps most intrigued by the three Wednesday night screenings at the El Rio: on the 13th it's a retrospective of some of the best locally-made MadCat 16mm films from the lifespan of the festival, including films by Greta Snider, Kerry Laitala and others. The 20th brings Zoe Beloff and Vladimir in a program that looks impossible to describe in a single sentence. And the 27th matches a set of recently-made silent films with live music by Tartufi and the Secrets of Family Happiness, the latter a band whose members I attended college with, but haven't gotten around to checking out since it formed.

Sunday, August 6


Watching Out

I hope anyone reading this has been enjoying last Wednesday's Avant-Garde Blog-A-Thon as much as I have been! Lots of discussions have been popping up in the comments sections of the various posts. I can only hope to make Hell on Frisco Bay feel as welcoming a hub for the August 21 Freleng-For-All as girish's place has been for this one.

But enough about Blog-A-Thons for the moment. I've got a boatful of tips on upcoming Frisco Bay film screenings to unload like a longshoreman, so I'd better get started:

Animation fans in the area should know that on November 9th the SFJAZZ festival will be showing Fleischer Studios films along with live performances by Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers in the Herbst Theatre on the stage where the UN Charter was first signed in 1945. The Castro will show Yellow Submarine on August 27th as part of a weekend celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Beatles' final concert ever at Candlestick Park. The Balboa Theatre is planning to show Friz Freleng films for his birthday celebration later this month. And Frisco's first International Festival of Short Films has at least one animated film on six of its seven programs (all but the documentary program). They screen at the Roxie and other venues August 10-12.

If all the Avant-Garde film talk has given you a hankering for seeing some projected, but you're frustrated that neither Other Cinema nor SF Cinematheque operate during the summer, take note that the ZeroOne Festival starts Monday and runs through Sunday, August 13 at venues all over San Jose. Peter Greenaway, Bill Viola, and Lynn Hershman Leeson are among the experimental film & video artists who will be on-hand with new work to show us. There will also be Live Cinema performers from all over the world.

But if you're confined to Frisco proper, there's always the North American-exclusive Matthew Barney exhibit at SFMOMA through September 17. His film Drawing Restraint 9 screens there for free (no museum admission required) every day but Wednesdays (when the museum is closed) at 2PM, plus Thursday evenings at 6:15. They're also showing the documentary the Body as Matrix: Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle daily at 4PM and Thursday evenings at 7PM.

There will be a couple of chances to see films from The Cremaster Cycle on Frisco screens this fall too. Cremaster 3 will play as a midnight(!) movie on September 29 & 30 at the Clay (more on the Clay's midnight series in a couple paragraphs). And the entire cycle is on the Red Vic's newest calendar, split (in numerical order: 1 with 2, 3 on its own, 4 with 5) between the first three consecutive Thursdays in November. Whether you view Barney's claim that his films will never be released on DVD as a promotional stunt, an offensive launched in the losing battle against the transfer of cinema culture to the living room, an invitation for underground economies to try to meet the market demand, or a non-issue, you can at least decide for yourself whether the films themselves are worth all the commotion. Drawing Restraint 9 plays the Red Vic on September 10 & 11.

Moving away from the strictly Avant-Garde, the Haight Street theatre will also be bringing premiere engagements of films like Takashi Miike's the Great Yokai War (Sep. 1-7) and Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation (Sep. 29-Oct. 8), revivals like the Battle of Algiers (Oct. 22-23), Manhattan (Nov. 7-8) and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Nov. 4), and last-chance theatrical showings of superior recent releases like a Prairie Home Companion (Aug. 30-31), Three Times (Sep. 8-9), the Puffy Chair (Sep. 15-16) and Lady in the Water (Oct. 29-30). OK, the latter may not be "superior" but it's definitely essential viewing for Shyamalan haters and admirers alike (I'm firmly in the latter category, even though I haven't sorted through my frustrations with this film yet).

Perhaps as a way of bracing for this fall's scheduled entry of the Sundance Kabuki and a new 9-screen Cinearts multiplex onto its art-theatre turf, the local Landmark Theatres are engaging in a little brand tweaking. They've launched a bloggish new site for their midnight movie series in Berkeley, Palo Alto and Frisco's Clay Theatre, the latter being the only one to stray very far from the typical well-known 80s and 90s nostalgia choices and play films not already in any of your friends' DVD collections (Cremaster 3 Sep. 29-30, as I noted before, but also Phantom of the Paradise Oct. 6, Toxic Avenger Oct. 10 and GMK: Giant Monsters All Out Attack Nov. 17-18). Another switch-up: what was the Lumiere/Opera Plaza film calendar is now the "SF Landmark Theatres Filmcalendar", with no clue provided about what Frisco cinema the following films (among others) will have their one-week stands in: Jan Svankmajer's latest Lunacy (Aug. 25-31), the Emmanuelle Devos-starring La Moustache (Sep. 22-28), Michael Apted's 49 Up (Oct. 6-12), Sundance critical favorite Old Joy (Oct. 20-26) and Iraq in Fragments (Nov. 10-16), which I guess I shouldn't be surprised to see relegated to calendar status despite its topicality, since it isn't one of the typical Academy-accessible docs that holds your hand all the way through its points.

The Shattuck Theatre's new calendar is nearly identical to the Frisco one, except for the omissions of Frisco-exclusives Two Drifters (Sep. 1-7), Zen Noir (Sep. 15-21) and Fanfan La Tulipe (Nov. 3-9). Instead, it will be the East Bay venue for the big Viva Pedro Almodóvar series of new prints that will also grace the Castro for the month of September. I haven't seen the latter theatre's schedule yet, but the Shattuck's breaks down as such: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown Sep. 1-7, All About My Mother, Talk To Her and Flower of My Secret Sep. 8-14, Live Flesh, Law of Desire and Bad Education Sep. 15-21, and Matador (the only one we're getting before New York and Los Angeles do) Sep. 22-28. This is all clearly meant to prime us for the late fall release of his latest, Volver.

Speaking of the Castro again, Lincoln Spector of Bayflicks knows a lot more about the technical end of film exhibition than I do and has sound perspective on the upcoming 70mm film series. You should be reading his columns every Friday anyway, though, so you probably knew that.

More little bits of info: Saturday, August 12 is Home Movie Day and the place to be in Frisco is the SF Media Archive, where you can see preserved home movies like San Francisco in Cinemascope projected between 6 and 8 PM, with other activities planned throughout the day.

This year's annual Film in the Fog screening in the Presidio is September 30th. The film: Them!

UPDATE 8/10/06: The picture to the right is not from Them! but from another giant-arthropod sci-fi made in its wake, Tarantula. Just as I was going to correct the image, I got a request to leave it up from a fan of the film. As a dual tribute to my loyal readers and to the many other simple errors I've doubtless made since starting this journal, I'm honoring the request. Now where was I...

If you were too preoccupied with the SFIFF to catch the Fallen Idol when it played back in April, another chance occurs at the Pacific Film Archive on September 8.

Also in September, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts will be showing the films of Peter Whitehead (including Tonite Let's All Make Love in London Sep. 21 and the Fall Sep. 28), among other offerings. It will be one of the venues for the Madcat Women's International Film Festival that month, as will A.T.A., the El Rio, and across the bridge, the PFA and the majestic Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland.

The Global Lens series playing the Rafael starting September 21 will first be at the Grand Lake from September 8-20. The series includes Cinema, Aspirin and Vultures from Brazil, In the Battlefields from Lebanon, and 5 other features and a shorts program.

And lastly, not long ago I responded to a fun quiz posted by one of my favorite fellow filmbloggers, Dennis Cozzalio. Question #7 asked me to name my favorite movie theatre, and I momentarily decided to use impressive architecture as my sole criterion and pick Oakland's Paramount, even though it hasn't shown a film since it played the Shop Around the Corner and its two remakes in early 2005. Days later the movie palace's website was updated with this encouraging tidbit:
The Paramount Theatre will be closed from July 26 through September 4, 2006 to replace the carpet. There will be no events scheduled during this period. A Movie Classic Series may be programmed for Fall, 2006 once the commercial show schedule is confirmed. Please check back in the middle of August for an update.
I'll keep checking, and hopefully soon I'll be able to add another theatre showing great films to my sidebar!

Wednesday, August 2


Bruce Conner's Permian Strata

I thought that these two posts would make up my entire reportage from last month's Silent Film Festival. I was wrong. As the preamble to my entry in Girish Shambu's Avant-Garde Blog-A-Thon I want to revisit my too-brief mention of G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box, a film I'd never seen before, saving it for just such an occasion as a new print at the Castro Theatre. I don't think I've seen anything quite like it: a carnival of unending depravity both gaudier and gloomier than I had expected, this atmosphere driven on by Clark Wilson's superb Wurlitzer score. Making Louise Brooks the face of the festival, her image appearing on posters, T-Shirts and the festival program cover, surely helped make the screening the biggest audience must-see of the weekend. I only hope the folks who were turned away from the sold-out show can take some solace in the fact that, according to the Louise Brooks Society, the Balboa and the Rafael will be screening Louise Brooks films on the weekend before her centennial birthday November 14.

The screening was introduced by several people, but most notably Bruce Conner, filmmaker, artist, and on-off Frisco inhabitant since 1957. But like Louise Brooks, Conner was born in Kansas, and he related what it was like growing up in the same town as a retired Hollywood star, where he almost took dance classes at her studio, and almost got up the nerve to ring her doorbell once. You can see the beginning of Conner's intro at filmmaker Caveh Zahedi's blog. Zahedi mentions Conner's evidently declined health, something I too wondered about, as he seemed quite a bit less lively and comfortable speaking than he did even nine months ago at an SFMOMA appearance. I imagine that it might be easier to relax and naturally let a mischievous energy flow while speaking about one's own films in front of a few hundred people who have come because of their interest in your work, as opposed to speaking in front of 1400 silent film and Louise Brooks fans, some of whom might not even know who you are. But then Conner doesn't seem like the sort to be fazed by stage fright; he got 5,500 Frisco voters to mark his name in a 1967 Board of Supervisors campaign (perhaps won over by his campaign speech: a list of sweets). According to this interview he was diagnosed with a fatal illness twenty years ago. Perhaps it's simply a matter of having good days and bad days. At any rate it's great to see him still involved in Frisco's film and cultural scene.

But what I really want to talk about is not Conner's health, but his filmmaking. In particular, a film he made in 1969 that rarely gets discussed, and is only barely mentioned even in the monograph 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II. This excellent tome contains close analysis by Bruce Jenkins of film-school staples like A Movie and Looking For Mushrooms as well as of later works like Valse Triste and Take the 5:10 to Dreamland. The 1969 film is called Permian Strata, a title which works in conjunction with the images and the song that makes up the film's soundtrack to form a colossal pun. So often experimental film gets pigeonholed as overly serious, boring, stuffy, or requiring an expertise in filmmaking processes to fully appreciate. But a big part of my attraction to these films is that so many of them exhibit an accessible sense of humor more genuine than some so-called comedies stuffed with lines written by "professional" joke writers do. Few films have the belly laugh potential of Permian Strata. I'll try my best to talk about the film without giving away the all the humor for those who haven't seen it yet, and I won't reveal the song on the soundtrack by name (I won't be able to avoid leaving clues, though, so if you're really concerned about having the surprise spoiled read no further).

The humorous nature of Permian Strata may be why it hasn't been discussed much. Conner has called it a "bad joke movie", which sounds like a dismissal of a slight film. But is it? Conner has never avoided using humor as a part of his films, his sculptures, or his other art pieces. His first film, the 1958 A Movie, derived as inspiration for its clown-car-of-recycled-footage collage aesthetic the scene in Duck Soup where Rufus T. Firefly calls for forces to come to the aid of Fredonia, which is probably why it too feels like a comedy. Dada was another early influence on Conner, and somehow it seems natural to connect Permian Strata with a piece of "anti-art" like Marcel Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q. Like Duchamp, Conner appropriates pre-existing artworks and alters them to create a new work satirizing the relationship we have to art and history.

One crucial difference between Permian Strata and the Duchamp parody is that (understatement alert!) Conner's film is appropriating far less well-known specific images than the Mona Lisa. It took me a fair bit of research into the fascinating history of Christian films for me to determine Conner's source: a 1949 Cathedral Films release the Life of Paul: On the Road to Damascus. Having not seen this 13-minute film parable yet, I don't know whether it is the origin for every image in Permian Strata (I'm not sure how the opening shot of a robed figure flicking powder into a cauldron would fit into the story of St. Paul, for example) but according to Conner lore it's one of his few collage films (along with Marilyn Times Five) in which all the images come from a single source. Judd Chesler has been quoted on this:
The style of Strata marks a departure from Conner's earlier collage forms. Conner chooses the significant footage from the found film and simply sets it off against the music. There's no cutting between the scenes.
This last sentence suggests that Conner simply took an intact excerpt from On The Road to Damascus and synched it against the chosen music track, but that surely isn't true. In fact Conner has carefully re-edited the shots so that the visual content lines up with certain lyrics in the song. Thus the narrative of Acts 9:1-18 is subverted by the "sound effects by Robert Zimmerman". For example, while we hear the words "walking on the street" we see the actor who plays Ananias doing precisely that. It gets a laugh every time I've seen it, whether at a public screening with strangers or when watching the now out-of-print Facets videocassette at home with friends. We may be responding to a "bad joke" or taking gleeful pleasure at the secular trumping the sacred. But I think there's something else going on. Though On the Road to Damascus has been all but forgotten, it unmistakably bears the symbols of something quite familiar: the historical/Biblical film. The appropriated images stand in for an entire genre, and one surely doesn't have to be a non-Christian to recognize the absurdity of the artifice of a low-budget period piece. In the context of the original film, this absurdity might well be overcome by strong narrative and/or direction, but when recontextualized (redirected) by Conner every gesture feels like a peek behind the puppeteer's curtain.

The moment when Ananias lays his hands on the unidentified blind Paul (it occurs at the end of On the Road to Damascus and the middle of Permian Strata) is particularly hilarious in light of the double-entendre of the song, which you may have guessed by now. Cinematic depictions of the blind being "healed" are invariably ludicrous (at least, I can't think of any that aren't, can you? Don't say At First Sight or I'll assume you're a Coca-Cola operative), but due to the temporal re-editing in Conner's film the viewer doesn't even know exactly what the actor playing Paul is trying to portray. He arches his shoulders, sucks in his chest, flutters his eye lashes, and suddenly his eyes pop wide open like he's just gone under the influence of a strange drug.

Permian Strata's final shots, in which Paul is struck blind, seem particularly significant in light of Conner's life and career. Conner had utilized themes of blindness before, most notable in a pair of pieces relating to Ray Charles he made in 1961: the sculpture Ray Charles/Snakeskin and the film Cosmic Ray. Regarding the latter, according to a quote Jenkins highlights from the transcript of the 1968 Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, Conner "felt that I was, in a way, presenting the eyes for Ray Charles, who is a blind musician." Furthermore, Joan Rothfuss in her biographical section of 2000 BC quotes Conner relating an experience he had at age eleven that he'd unlocked from his unconscious upon first trying peyote in 1958:
I was home in the late afternoon with the sunlight coming through the window in my room. I was lying on the rug working on my homework. I decided to rest and I laid my head on the floor. The light started to change and became very bright....Shapes and sizes were changing. It seemed like they weren't inanimate. They were living things. I was part of them, and I was moving into them. I moved into a space that was incomprehensible to me....I went through things, and places, and spaces, and creatures. I became them, and I came back to myself....I went through all these changes until I was so old. I was so wrinkly. My bones were creaking and likely to break....Then I began to realize that I was on the floor, I was back....I became myself again, after eons of time....It was the same room. Only fifteen minutes had passed
I'm not sure what to make of this mystical experience, except to think such a memory surely is something Conner has carried with him through his artistic life, and to note certain parallels to the transformation the Paul character undergoes in the final minute of Permian Strata. At the moment he becomes blinded by a "very bright" light (in On the Road to Damascus it's Heavenly light accompanied by the voice of Jesus Christ), the soundtrack provides a couplet: "it's the end" rhymed with "come back again". I could be reading way too much into what was intended as nothing more than another synchronization joke like the one made at the line "walking on the street". But if Conner in 1969 remembered coming back again from exposure to a beam of light, it could be one reason why he responded to this particular 16mm footage strongly enough to make a film out of it.

Though Conner apparently believes that "Avant-Garde is a historical term. It doesn't exist anymore", here are some other pages to consult in today's Avant-Garde Blog-A-Thon:

  • Acquarello at Strictly Film School.
  • Mubarak Ali at Supposed Aura.
  • Brendon Bouzard at My Five Year Plan.
  • Chris Cagle at Category D.
  • Zach Campbell at Elusive Lucidity.
  • Matthew Clayfield at Esoteric Rabbit.
  • Culture Snob.
  • Filmbrain at Like Anna Karina's Sweater.
  • Jim Flannery at A Placid Island of Ignorance.
  • Flickhead.
  • Richard Gibson.
  • girish.
  • Ed Gonzalez at Slant.
  • Michael Guillen at The Evening Class.
  • Tom Hall at The Back Row Manifesto.
  • Ian W. Hill at Collisionwork.
  • Andy Horbal at No More Marriages!
  • David Hudson at Greencine Daily.
  • Darren Hughes at Long Pauses.
  • Jennifer Macmillan at Invisible Cinema.
  • Peter Nellhaus at Coffee Coffee and More Coffee.
  • David Pratt-Robson at Videoarcadia.
  • Seadot at An Astronomer in Hollywood.
  • Michael Sicinski at The Academic Hack.
  • Michael S. Smith at Culturespace.
  • Squish at The Film Vituperatum.
  • Tom Sutpen at If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger.
  • That Little Round-Headed Boy.
  • Thom at Film Of The Year.
  • Chuck Tryon at The Chutry Experiment.
  • Harry Tuttle at Screenville.
  • Walter at Quiet Bubble.

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