Saturday, December 23


Looking ahead to 2007: Wish List

It's the season for making lists, and I can't resist joining in the fun. Expect me to post a list or two wrapping up my year 2006 in film, but don't expect to see it until after the calendar year is officially over. I tend to be a literalist that way (and who knows what the next week or so might bring?) In the meantime, this one is, like a Christmas list for Santa, a list of a selfish nature. A top 20 films and film series I hope might make their way to a Frisco Bay screen sometime in 2007, not necessarily in order. Don't anyone take it too seriously, though. I'd like to see all these films grace a local screen, but even if they do, I suspect a greater portion of my cinema-going pleasure next year will come from films I wouldn't even be able to think of hoping for, while this list is made up of films I know to be available to some degree. The film programmers on Frisco Bay are knowledgeable, creative and unpredictable people, and I'm doing this for my own personal pleasure, not to second-guess professionals who I trust to do their jobs better than I possibly could.

1. First of all, of the twenty items on the wish-list I drew up last year, half were at least partially fulfilled. Thanks to the SFIFF, the SFIAAFF, the PFA, the Castro, SFMOMA, the Roxie, the Rafael, the Red Vic, the Balboa and the Camera 12 for choosing at least one of my hoped-for films to bring to town (I suspect most if not all of these selections were in the pipeline long before I drew up my list). But that still leaves ten wishes to roll over for 2007 screenings. I'm no less eager to see them than I was a year ago. So slot #1 on this year's list goes to the "leftovers" from last year's.

2. I was shocked and saddened by the death of one my favorite filmmakers, Robert Altman, this past November. It made me all the more grateful that I got to be in his presence at the Castro Theatre back in 2003. We'll never see fascinating projects he'd been developing like Voltage and Paint come to fruition, but there will always be the films he completed and left for us. Many of which I've never watched the way they were meant to be: on the big screen. I hope a retrospective of his work as large as possible might come to town soon. Something along these lines would be ideal, though even that line-up excludes films I'd love to visit or revisit in film form, like a Wedding and the Company.

3. One of 2006's most enticing World Cinema projects was the commissioning of seven filmmakers from outside Europe and North America to make films for the New Crowned Hope festival celebrating the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth. I just learned that Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century and Tsai Ming-Liang's I Don't Want To Sleep Alone have been picked up for distribution by Strand and presumably will make their way to Frisco one way or another, but five other films, including Paz Encina's Paraguayan Hammock, have far less certain fates. I hope all seven films get their chance to play here sometime in 2007.

4. The Alloy Orchestra has brought the 1928 Pál Fejös film Lonesome back into its repertoire, and I know they'll make Frisco's many silent film fans (including me) very happy if they play their score in front of it here as soon as possible.

5. Another, completely different sort of silent film making the rounds with live musical accompaniment is Paolo Cherchi Usai's Passio. Sounds beautiful.

6. Something's got to be done about the availability of Johnnie To film prints here. None of his last three films (Election, Election 2 or Exiled) have played in town yet. His previous three all made it: the Balboa played Breaking News last February and the Four Star brought Throw Down and Yesterday Once More in 2004. Might 2007 be the year we get caught up again with one of Hong Kong's most intriguing directors?

7. I don't mean to seem ungrateful, as the Jacques Rivette retrospective that recently came to the Pacific Film Archive was a wonderful highlight of my filmgoing year. But knowing it was missing a few titles seen elsewhere in 2006 (most notably Out 1) has my appetite whetted for more Rivette to come here in 2007. Here's hoping it does.

8. The Fall issue of Landmark's FLM magazine tells us that Jean-Luc Godard's seminal Two Or Three Things I Know About Her is supposed to be making the rounds. I want at least one of those rounds to be around here.

9. The paper copy of that same issue also contained a promising blurb for Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Invisible Waves, which has been picked up for distribution by Palm Pictures. Since it's a national magazine I don't always trust that an appearance in FLM will lead to a Frisco Bay screening, but this one has got to come through this way, right? Mixed reviews be damned, I'd like to see it.

10. Speaking of Pen-ek, I know that he, along with Eric Khoo and Derezhan Omirbaev, contributed to a digital omnibus film for Korea's Jeonju International Film Festival. Last year the three contributors to that festival's inaugural project were Shiya Tsukamoto, Song Il-gon and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. So far of the six, only Tsukamoto's Haze has shown here (in a slightly longer version than the one used by Jeonju). How about some more?

11. After being exposed to Malaysian filmmaker Amir Muhammad's cinema in 2005 through the Year of Living Vicariously and Tokyo Magic Hour, here's hoping his latest, the Last Communist will be seen in Frisco soon.

12. Any chance the Fox pre-code film series that just wrapped up at the Film Forum might make its way Westward? I'd love a chance to see Zoo in Budapest and all the others.

13. Though this wish list was pretty much finalized before I started poring through the indieWIRE Critics Poll Best Undistributed Film list, there are several films from the top tier of the list that I particularly hope play nearby soon. Two directed by Jia Zhang-Ke, Still Life and Dong, have been said to "belong together" by Girish Shambu, so I'm keeping them as a single entry here. Hopefully they'll be brought here together as well?

14. The latest by Alain Resnais, Private Fears in Public Places also came in very high in the indieWIRE poll.

15. Another intriguing film with a strong showing in the poll is Sophie Fiennes' documentary the Pervert's Guide to Cinema, the "pervert" in question being philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek.

16. Lisandro Alonso's Fantasma didn't make the top twenty in the indieWIRE poll, but after his quietly disquieting Los Muertos I very much want to follow up on this young Argentinean's work.

17. Bruce Conner has a new short film called His Eye on the Sparrow that I'm dying to see.

18. & 19. Here's a pair I probably wouldn't even know about if I didn't maintain a film blog. Tim Lucas recently pointed out that being a blogger all but requires a certain amount of time spent reading others' blogs, and it's true, though I wouldn't do it if I didn't enjoy it. As a result, two internet-connected filmmakers have succeeded in getting me to hope a theatre near me books their latest features. One, Sujewa Ekanayake, director of Date Number One, through his friendly, open, positive, generous and forthcoming internet presence. The other, Murali K. Thalluri, director of 2:37, through, shall I say, a very different sort of internet presence. (Note that there are other filmmakers who blog and/or conduct concentrated awareness campaigns on the internet, whose films I'd also very much like to see play theatrically in Frisco next year, but these two in one way or another have created the strongest blips on my radar screen right now.)

20. Last but not least, as excited as I am that the SFMOMA and the Red Vic are both showing Werner Herzog films early in 2007, one title I wish hadn't been left out is the Enigma of Kaspar Hauser a.k.a. Every Man For Himself and God Against All. It's been playing in a new print in New York, so might it arrive here sometime later next year?

Saturday, December 16


Winter of Our Film Content

Yesterday's Sátántangó alert wasn't meant to imply that there's nothing else of interest in the just-announced PFA calendar for January and February. On the contrary, though tomorrow's screening of Yojimbo finishes up their 2006 programs, there's a lot more happening once the theatre reopens next semester. The "a Theatre Near You" program also brings films by Melville and the Brothers Quay, and David Thompson appears each Thursday to introduce four late-classical Hollywood films and two post-classical responses (Pierrot Le Fou and Bonnie and Clyde). Steve Seid curates a program of Collectively Created Compilations which sounds just fascinating. The annual African and Human Rights Watch film festivals, a set of all-ages Saturday matinees and the usual Tuesday avant-garde showcase, this time around with a four-night focus on Yoko Ono's film work (to go along with her exhibit down the block) ensures the venue's unmatchable programming diversity. But the largest individual series on the calendar is the 22-film Ernst Lubitsch retrospective, including a healthy selection of his German- and Hollywood-made silent films with live piano accompaniment, 75th-anniversary screenings of Trouble in Paradise, One Hour With You and even his 3-minute contribution to the If I Had a Million omnibus, and wrapping up with his last completed film, the underseen and underrated Cluny Brown.

Of course all this competes with the activity on this side of the Bay Bridge, particularly at the Castro Theatre. The Berlin and Beyond film festival runs there January 11-17; interesting-sounding selections include the Free Will, the Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez and Einstürzende Neubauten, which will be accompanied by an appearance by bandleader Blixa Bargeld. Then, Alexander Jodorowsky's El Topo comes for a two day stint January 19-20, followed by the Holy Mountain Jan. 21-22. The fifth annual Noir City festival settles in at the venue again starting with a January 26th gala with Marsha Hunt in person and in Raw Deal and Kid Glove Killer, and the seedy film line-up continues through February 4th, packed with noirs of various degrees of rarity. I'm especially excited that on February 1st the festival's first Fritz Lang booking, Scarlet Street, one of the greatest remakes (in this case, of Renoir's La Chienne) ever made in Hollywood, and which until recently has been seen almost invariably in prints of dubious quality or worse. I strongly suspect Eddie Muller's print sleuthing will turn up something better to show off this film. Then from February 15-22 comes the Janus series I noted in an earlier post. The titles have been announced and can be found here.

Though 2007 is already promising some delightful film treats, 2006 still has a couple more weeks in it, and if you're looking to go out and see a film that doesn't come pre-packaged with sickening amounts of Oscar buzz, the options are getting rather scarce. But they're out there. The Red Vic has its annual stint of Baraka the week between Christmas and New Year's. The Castro and Stanford both will continue to run classic films into the holidays, and they're joined by the newly re-opened Cerrito Theatre, two blocks from the El Cerrito BART station, which started a series called Cerrito Classics a few weeks ago. Each Saturday and Sunday the theatre brings a well-loved Hollywood title for a pair of screenings. Today and tomorrow it's the Thin Man, Dec. 23-24 it's the Bishop's Wife, Dec. 30-31 the Frisco-set After the Thin Man and in January they plan a different Hitchcock film each weekend. The Cerrito is being run by the same group of folks who've been so successful running Oakland's Parkway Speakeasy Theatre for so long, and though I haven't had a chance yet to see what the Cerrito is like up close, I hope and expect it to be run with a similar intelligence and care. Incidentally, the Parkway will be showing Ray Harryhausen's Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers on January 11th. And on the subject of places to mix eating and moviewatching, Foreign Cinema is showing Like Water For Chocolate at dusk through the end of the year, and 2001: a Space Odyssey through most of January.

Reaching back to an era that might be called "pre-classic" is the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, showing D.W. Griffith's 1914 adaptation of Poe, the Avenging Conscience, which Jonathan Rosenbaum includes in his 1000-film personal canon, on December 23rd, and Rex Ingram's Scaramouche on the 30th.

And there are even some new foreign films in theatres over the next few weeks. Sure, there's always a few this time of year competing for the Foreign-Language Film Oscar (the Rafael Film Center will show a set of those January 12-21, and Argentina's submission the Aura comes to the Roxie Jan. 5-11). But that's not all. There's the well-reviewed policier Le Petit Lieutenant. Year-round Bollywood theatres like Naz 8 in Fremont and the India Movie Center in San Jose certainly don't rejigger their programming in December to make way for American awards show hype. And just the other day I watched Train Man, which is playing for one more week at the Four Star and the Rafael. It's a geek-makes-good romantic comedy whose title character is an isolated, anime-obsessed otaku. He becomes an unlikely subway hero and, with the aid of his "cyber-friends", must confront his social inexperience and try to navigate a relationship with the "rich girl" he'd come to the defense of. The main story thread is light on conflict, sugary sweet, disturbingly materialistic and thuddingly un-subtle. However, for an internet habitué like myself it was still irresistible, and one scene, which threw everything that came before it into question, was one of the best cinematic surprises of the year for me. Shot in bright Atari colors with an effectively chaotic use of split screen alternated with a few quietly poignant moments with Train Man's online cheering section, I think its worth seeing in the theatre if it's worth seeing at all. I'm as thrilled as anyone that, as has been reported elsewhere, the Lees' struggle to keep the Four Star running has been rewarded with success. I'll be even more thrilled if Asian movies can continue to play there and find audiences. For example, Linda Linda Linda is among the best movies I've seen all year (at a film festival), and its trailer ran before its more off-puttingly mainstream compatriot Train Man. I hope it makes it back to Frisco for a regular run, perhaps at the Four Star, so I can direct friends, family, co-workers and strangers on the street who look like they need a good cheering up to it.

Friday, December 15


Eight hours in a purple chair

Time to mark your calendar, buy your advance tickets, re-up your membership.

Target date: February 17, 2007.

It's Sátántangó.

At the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.

Béla Tarr. According to David Bordwell, four hundred and thirty-four minutes of him. In one hundred and seventy-two shots.

Two intermissions.

In black and white.

See you there?

Saturday, December 9


Open Letter

To the guy who decided it would be a good idea to loudly cough the word *boring* on his way out of the theatre in the middle of the Story of Marie and Julien Friday night:

It might please you to learn that, within a few minutes of your departure, the clarity of your critique had sunk in to each and every one of us in the audience. That, though we'd been too blinded by our allegiance to the ideal of "art cinema" to recognize it on our own, your analysis spurred us to realize that "the Emperor Had No Clothes", and to walk, one by one and two by two, out into the lobby of the Pacific Film Archive, where Susan Oxtoby herself reassured us all that never again would the PFA make the mistake of programming a film like it.

Well, I'm afraid that none of that actually happened. There were a few chuckles after your departing remark, and then we all remained in our seats, enjoying, or perhaps (as I didn't have the wherewithal to conduct a survey) being bored by the rest of the film. This does not make us more virtuous than the people who, in case you thought you were being terribly original, walked out of the film before you did. But it certainly doesn't make you any better or smarter or more "with it" or honest than us either.

To be sure, this is a challenging film, and I'm not all that surprised no Frisco Bay film programmer had wanted to bring it to us before. To be truthful, I'm not certain what I'd have made of its first hour or so if I hadn't seen its elder cousin Celine and Julie Go Boating last month. Both films are mysteries where the mystery is little more than hinted at during the first half of the film, which, on a single viewing apiece for me so far, I take as instead the terrain for helping us get to know the characters and the nature of their relationship. In each case the first half is the foundation for the truly astonishing material that comes in the second half. In the case of Celine and Julie Go Boating the title characters are so naturally appealing that I didn't care at all that I wasn't getting a sense of narrative driving the film. In the case of the Story of Marie and Julien that's slightly less the case, but I was no longer a Rivette virgin and it was probably my trust that the director would at some point take me into some extraordinary realm like the one I'd so loved in Celine and Julie Go Boating that prevented the sense that I might have been "missing something" (or that the director, or the rest of the audience might have been) from taking hold. It didn't even occur to me to look at my watch (though Rivette had placed all those clocks on the screen) or be bored; I was, as one character put it, "waiting." Which paid off in a big way, delivering a third act as emotional and suspenseful as a great Val Lewton film, while following Rivette's tradition of guiding his audience a step closer to an intellectual understanding of the nature and "rules" of character, drama and cinema. I'd be sorry you had to miss it, if only you hadn't been such an ass about it.

But most of all I'm confused as to how you could possibly choose a sex scene with Emmanuelle Béart to be the moment to walk out on. What's wrong with you, man?

Sunday, December 3


Everybody (in the audience) Is A Critic

I feel a bit presumptious participating in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania blogger Andy Horbal's Film Criticism Blog-A-Thon. Though I have an inner urge to write about films, I must admit that the few times I've been described with the word "critic" I've had to supress a wince. Not that I feel I'm "above" such a label, quite the contrary. The critics I most admire seem able to carve a deeply insightful (whether I agree wholeheartedly or not) critical response to practically every slice of moving image they come across. I don't feel nearly as able to do such a thing. I strongly identify with something Jonas Mekas wrote about himself: "Maybe I am more a tinker than a thinker." I'm not exactly sure what Mekas meant by it when it was published May 29, 1969 (he proves himself quite a thinker discussing Arnulf Rainer in the very next paragraph) but in my writing I often feel like an untrained dabbler, most comfortable chiselling diligently at a tiny, underworked corner of knowledge. Most times when I feel tempted to make a grand pronouncement on the "big picture" issues of cinema, I feel like I'm just saying something that countless people before me have already said less clumsily. I'm mostly content to let others do the critical "heavy lifting" for me. It's one reason why I try to include so many links in each post I write at this site.

But there are lots of differing definitions of the word "critic". WordNet-Online has three. The first is "a person who is professionally engaged in the analysis and interpretation of works of art" and it doesn't seem like me at all- I earn my living working in libraries, perhaps helping facilitate others' analysis and interpretation, but not doing any myself. Definition #3 is the one the saying I riff on in the title of this post stems from: "someone who frequently finds fault or makes harsh and unfair judgments." Not me at all; I normally err in the other direction. But look at the second definition: "anyone who expresses a reasoned judgment of something." That's me. Not always, of course. Sometimes my judgments come purely from emotion, not reason (hopefully I can at least tell the difference.)

But if that's me, isn't it everybody else in the movie theatre too? I'm not trained in psychology, but I'm not one of those who believes that some, most or any people really turn their brains off when they watch a movie. Of course, people have different tools to help them analyze films at different levels. When I was a young child I didn't have the interest in or the ability to differentiate adult actors' faces from each other; I could only recognize types, which put me at a disadvantage for understanding a film with more than one brown-haired adult male character in it, for example. But I tried to use reason to figure out what was happening based on what I could understand. Many moviegoers may not understand the difference between what a film director and a screenwriter is (some days I'm not so sure I've got as firm a grasp on it as I think I do) but if that limits the types of rational analysis that can be performed when watching a movie, it certainly does not cease such analysis.

And everyone judges films. How many "big" film websites have recognized this and provided anyone happening to stop and look at a film's page the opportunity to rate it? Have you ever asked someone's opinion on a film, only to have them tell you, "I don't know"? Doesn't such a response pretty much imply that a person has too many opinions about a given film, rather than too few? And, of course, these opinions are constantly expressed. Let me for a moment step away from my pontificating to provide a concrete example from my primary area of expertise: the Frisco filmgoing scene.

The setting is the Castro Theatre last night, where the Silent Film Society hosted another highly successful event: a screening of the 1927 Cecil B. DeMille-produced original film version of Chicago (though there's evidence to suggest DeMille actually directed it but gave Frank Urson the credit.) The house was packed tightly enough that I had to find a seat way in the upper reaches of the balcony, where I had a much better view of a couple film cans labeled "the Flowers of St. Francis" than I had of the Baker-Mehling Hot Five providing the flapper-era jazz accompaniment for the film. No matter, I heard the band and saw the screen fine, and from my lofty position perhaps felt a little more prone to pay particular attention to reactions of the audience between me and the screen. It's a fun if occasionally over-telegraphed film and it certainly seems like it could be a pre-code DeMille to me: a morality tale in which the sinners are more irresistible than the saints.

Normally I find I can't stomach trial sequences. They've knocked the life out of many an otherwise enjoyable film from Mutiny on the Bounty to, well, Chicago. I've never been able to get past my dislike of film trials and appreciate what everyone else seems to love about something like Anatomy of a Murder. But the trial scene is surely the heart of this Chicago and its best sequence. I should probably exempt silent film trial scenes from my blanket scorn, as they so naturally rely on visual storytelling that they're more likely to overcome the problems so many talking trial scenes cannot (I'd supply details if it didn't feel like a subject for another post entirely.) the Passion of Joan of Arc and the Unholy Three are a rarely-compared pair that more than overcome, and gloriously. In Chicago, Urson/DeMille play up the scenario's farcical aspects perfectly by having everybody burlesque to a degree rarely seen in even the most overacted silent film. Throughout the film Phyllis Haver's performance as Roxie has been ramped up a notch in intensity over her costars Victor Varconi, Eugene Pallette, etc. But now, wearing a scandalously leggy, virginally white dress, she launches into the realm of parody and brings everyone from the flustered prosecuting attorney to the lecherously leering jurymen to the gumsmacking public along with her. The ludicrous acting styles are all the more effective for being incorporated into a quick-cut pattern of editing helping to give the sense of a courtroom about to explode. When she completes her dramatic testimony as if a beginning drama student hamming for her first audition, the Castro audience broke into a huge round of applause.

Now, who knows just what inspired hundreds of different people to spontaneously begin clapping in the very middle of a film whose creators were long-dead. For many this may have been a mainly emotional response, or a rational one far different from the one I found myself experiencing. There's really no way to tell if, like me, people were starting to wonder to themselves if the filmmakers were making a subversive commentary (criticism!) of silent film acting in general here at the dawn of the sound film era. The film does include a newspaper headline playing off of the first big semi-talkie, the Jazz Singer ("Jazz Shooter"), after all.

What I do know from the applause is that as a group this audience liked that scene. A lot. Almost certainly better than any scene appearing prior to it, and probably better than anything after as well (though plenty of enthusiastic hisses and cheers erupted during the film's coda of comeuppance). Is calling these kinds of mass responses (or the ones described here and here) real film criticism a stretch? Maybe. But if so, does this or this or this still get to be called criticism? How about this or this?

Thanks, Andy, for spurring me to write this piece for your Blog-A-Thon. It turned out better than I expected, and I don't feel quite as presumptuous any longer (though I'm not tempted to re-edit the beginning paragraph at all- sometimes my posts are like journeys through a writing experiment, and I feel like preserving that feeling.)

A final note for the day for my Frisco Bay readers, especially fans of silent films accompanied by top-class musicians: though the Berlin and Beyond festival at the Castro has not released its schedule yet, it seems that on January 15th Dennis James is slated to perform a score to a new restoration of a Bavarian silent called Nathan, the Wise, featuring Werner Krauss (of the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) in the title role and Max Schrek (Nosferatu) to boot.

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