Sunday, September 30


Wuthering Heights

How many ways are there to segue from a Blog-A-Thon on William Wyler to one on Luis Buñuel? More than you might think. Flickhead, the host of the latter 'Thon, has illustrated one pathway by posting a terrific photograph with the two men posed less than a yard apart from each other (Wyler's standing next to George Cukor, who's standing behind Buñuel). It was not the first time the directors had rubbed elbows. In 1971, in celebration the Cannes Film Festival's 25th edition, both men were among a group of twelve international auteurs honored. The others were Lindsay Anderson, Michaelangelo Antonioni, Robert Bresson, Rene Clement, Frederico Fellini, Vojtech Jasny, Masaki Kobayashi, Orson Welles (who was not present at the festival) and Serge Youtkevitch. You may say, "wait a minute, that doesn't add up to twelve!" Blame the New York Times article of May 13, 1971 from which I obtained this list, for coming up one short. Wyler biographer Jan Herman wrote that there were five directors honored, not twelve: Wyler, Buñuel, Fellini, Ingmar Bergman and Rene Clair. Obviously further research on this gathering is merited.

Another clear path between the two directors is that they, with apologies to Yoshishige Yoshida, Peter Kosminsky, Suri Krishnamma, Robert Fuest, A.V. Bramble and Jacques Rivette, directed the two most enduring film versions of Emily Brontë's novel Wuthering Heights. It seems Buñuel had the idea first, as the book was a favorite of his surrealist crowd in the early 1930s. According to Francisco Aranda's Luis Buñuel: a Critical Biography he worked with Pierre Unik, and briefly with Georges Sadoul as well, to write a screen adaptation shortly after the completion of Land Without Bread in 1932. But Buñuel would not have the ability to get the project off the ground until after he'd established himself as a director of narrative features in Mexico. Wyler's Wuthering Heights was released in 1939, earning numerous Oscar nominations and establishing Laurence Olivier as an international star. Buñuel would not begin revising his old script until 1952. The film was shot in 1953 and released in 1954 under the title Cumbres Borrascosas (the title the Brontë book was known by in Spanish translations). Later it was retitled Abismos de Pasión.

Both the 1939 American version and the 1954 Mexican version of Wuthering Heights were filmed in their respective countries' Southwestern scrub desertlands. Wyler's version had its outdoor scenes shot in the still-rural outskirts of Los Angeles. Buñuel, according to biographer John Baxter, shot the film
at the hacienda of San Francisco de Quadra in the barren uplands of Guerrero, near Taxco. Critics noticed immediately that this was pretty odd country. Thunderstorms crash and flare each night, but dawn reveals a land as parched and bare as the slopes of Paracutin. Most of the trees are dead, but Eduardo, the effete Hindley character, still finds plenty of butterflies and insects for his collection.
But Buñuel's Wuthering Heights makes no reference to geography, and indeed changes the names of its characters so that Cathy becomes Catalina (played by Irasema Dilián), and Heathcliff becomes Alejandro (Jorge Mistral). If Wyler's version attempted a recreation of Brontë's Yorkshire, down to the vast quantities of Calluna vulgaris imported from England and planted on the hillsides, Buñuel's version seems set in its own unique landscape if not land, an arid one all the better to inflame the illogical passions of the characters.

Buñuel wanted to enhance the l'amour fou aspects of Brontë's novel, and one way he achieved this was by beginning the film at the moment of Heathcliff/Alejandro's return upon having made his fortune. By spending so much time with Heathcliff, Catherine and Hindley as youths, Wyler's film explains the tragedy of the romance quite plausibly. He shows how the connection between Heathcliff and Cathy is sown, and also how their class differences must keep them apart. Buñuel, by contrast, simply drops us into a world in which the fundamental bonds and barriers between the characters have long since been established, and insists we pay attention instead to just how they are resisted. As Sue Lonoff de Cuevas has so succintly put it, Wyler's version of the romance is "sentimental" and Buñuel's "anti-sentimental."

This despite a romantic-style musical score adapted by composer Raul Lavista from Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. Buñuel had used this music before, in both Un Chien Andalou and L'Age D'Or. When discussing these two films, and specifically in reference to the latter, Peter Conrad has written, "An orchestra happens to be playing Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, which treats love as a mystical rapture; for Dali and Buñuel, it is more like a demented regression." In Wuthering Heights Wagner's themes are rapture and regression all at once, the Liebestod endowing the final sequence in particular with a great deal of its disturbing resonance. Watching it recently, I found myself wondering if it was at all possible that Bernard Herrmann might have seen Buñuel's film before being inspired to masterfully borrow the same theme to signify the l'amour fou of Vertigo. Vincent Canby, in his 1983 review of Buñuel's Wuthering Heights, suggests that the film had not played in New York City (Herrmann's lifelong home) until 1976, except perhaps at one of the city's Spanish-language theatres. It's intriguing to imagine the composer catching a Mexican Buñuel film at a place like the Elgin (which played only Spanish-language films in the 1950s), but the connection is most likely to be happy coincidence, I suspect. Yet, apart from its placement in the final scene, Buñuel was not happy with the music in Wuthering Heights. At least, he said as much later in life. Aranda quotes him:
It was my own fault. My negligence. I went to Europe, to Cannes, and left the composer to add the musical accompaniment; and he put music throughout the film. A real disaster. I intended to use Wagner just at the end, in order to give the film a romantic aura, precisely the characteristic sick imagination of Wagner.
But Baxter notes that the director did not leave for Europe until April 1954, after the music track for the film had already been fixed in place. And Aranda quotes Buñuel again, this time from an interview that took place while he was in Cannes that year serving on the jury that selected Gate of Hell as top prizewinner: "For Cumbres Borrascosas I put myself into the state of mind of 1930; and since at that time I was a hopeless Wagnerian, I introduced fifty minutes of Wagner." Here Buñuel seemingly is taking personal credit for the abundance of music in the film, and in the context of a discussion of how much he generally dislikes film music, too. So did he change his mind, or just his tune? Another subject for further research, it appears.

More reviews of Buñuel's Wuthering Heights well worth reading include: Ed Gonzalez's take at Slant, Fernando F. Croce's capsule at CinePassion, and a review newly-written for this very Blog-a-Thon by Robert Monell of I'm In a Jess Franco State of Mind.

And if you're in the Frisco Bay Area wondering when your next chance to see a Buñuel film on the big screen might be, it looks like you may have to wait until December 17th, when Belle de Jour will be brought to Artists' Television Access along with a post-film discussion. It's part of a series devoted to silver screen sex workers presented by Whore! Magazine to benefit the health care efforts at the Mission District's St. James Infirmary. This fall at ATA looks particularly busy with interesting screenings in general, including the Other Cinema fall program, the ATA Film and Video Festival October 10-12, a continuing series of Guy Debord films, a stint as a venue for the 11th Arab Film Festival (which has just released the full contents of its program), and an October 26th evening of music and film entitled Roman Meal that you really do not want to miss. Trust me on that one.

Sunday, September 23


An Interview With Judy Wyler Sheldon

André Bazin once called him "the consummate artist". James Agee said he was "one of the great ones." He was William Wyler, and this weekend has seen a confluence of celebrations, re-evaluations, and analysis of the work of this director, in the form of the William Wyler Blog-A-Thon hosted by Mike "Goatdog" Phillips.

William Wyler and Margaret Tallichet ("Talli"), his wife, named their first two children after characters in his films. The eldest daughter Catherine was, like a great many girls born in 1939, named after Merle Oberon's character in Wuthering Heights. She would executive-produce a documentary on her father called Directed By William Wyler, built around the last interview he ever gave, three days before his death in 1981.

The second Wyler daughter was born just before the 1942 release of Mrs. Miniver, and was named Judy after the on-screen daughter of Greer Garson's title character, who was played by child actor Clare Sanders in the film. Now, under her married name Judy Wyler Sheldon, she is the president of the board of directors of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, an organization that I volunteer for. To contribute to this Blog-a-Thon, I thought it might be fun to interview a Wyler family member. Indeed, it was a delight to experience Judy's warm humor over the phone, and to hear her share a few reminiscences about a man who, as David Cairns succinctly put it, was "interested in human experience in its entirety." Here is my transcription of the conversation:

Hell on Frisco Bay: Though we've never met, I've seen you on the stage at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. How did you become interested in silent films?

Judy Wyler Sheldon: I really was neither interested, nor did I know a thing about them until my siblings and I were invited to go to the festival in Italy - the other big silent film festival, called Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, which takes place in Pordenone every year up in the Friuli area of Italy. They were doing a retrospective of my father's silent films in '95, '96, something like that, and they wanted us to come over. I have two sisters and a brother, and we thought, "Oh! Film festival? Italy? Why not!" We were thinking it was going to be like Cannes or Venice: what are we going to wear, what jewels should we take...

HoFB: I hear it's a pretty down-to-Earth festival.

JWS: It's VERY down-to-Earth. Everybody was in blue jeans. So we went to the festival and had a wonderful time. I saw my father's silent films for the first time. He never talked about his silent films. He just considered that part of his schooling. We saw not only his but a lot of other people's silent films. It was a week-long festival. When I got back, I was talking about it, and a friend of mine said "Well you know San Francisco has a silent film festival. It's pretty young, and you should find out about it." I did, and I got involved a couple of years later, joined the board, and now I'm the president of the board. So that's how it came about, but until then I really didn't know anything about silent films. And of course seeing my father's films... you know he started very young. At Pordenone they showed the films that they had chronologically. They started with those two-reel Westerns, which we thought were perfectly horrible. I remember sitting in the theatre with my siblings and we're kind of elbowing each other as we saw one film after another, all kind of the same plots, terrible camera-work, and wondering "what are we going to say?" We knew we were going to be interviewed, and answer questions. Fortunately as he got a little more experienced they did get better, so the last few that they showed were okay.

HoFB: I think William Wyler is probably best-known today for all the Oscars and Oscar nominations his films were awarded. Did you watch the Oscar ceremony growing up?

JWS: Well, I don't so much remember watching them on television, but I did go to the Oscars a couple of times. I went the year that he was nominated for Roman Holiday but didn't win, and I went the year that he did win for Ben-Hur. Those were really exciting. Although it was embarrassing, as they'd always send a limo to take you to the Oscars. You'd collect into this long line of limos going to (wherever the Oscars were being held in those years), and there'd be fans there lining up to see the stars getting out of their limos. They'd come and look through the windows, which weren't smoked in those days. They'd peer in and they'd say "Oh, that's nobody," because my father wasn't recognizable except to a few people in the know. I just remember finding that so humiliating, that they'd dismiss us with "Oh, that's nobody" and go on to the next car trying to find some big movie star.

HoFB: I believe Roman Holiday is one of at least two of your father's films in which you can be seen in an on-screen role. Is that correct?

JWS: Right. There are only two, and the first one, which is the Best Years of Our Lives, I'm in for about three seconds in a scene in the drugstore. There are lots of clients in the drugstore, just sort of in the background, and I'm a child of five or so, with my sister.

HoFB: Is there any way we can recognize you if we play the DVD?

JWS: Gosh... I'm just a little girl in a dress, with my sister, who's three years older than I am. It's just fleeting, and I can't even remember which scene it is. It's obviously one of the scenes with Dana Andrews.

HoFB: I recently looked at those scenes and I think I spied a pair of little girls looking at him in the very first scene where he visits the store.

JWS: It could be that one. I'd have to go back and look myself, but it's really fast. In Roman Holiday I got a little bit more of a chance. It was maybe five seconds more (laughs) and I actually was supposed to mumble "don't take my camera," because I was wearing a camera and Gregory Peck wanted to take pictures of Audrey Hepburn getting her hair cut. His photographer friend Eddie Albert wasn't with him, so he goes out and sees a group of schoolgirls at the Trevi Fountain. He comes up to me and tries to take the camera from around my neck and I'm saying, "Don't take my camera." My sister, who was in the scene as another schoolgirl, calls the teacher. She says, "Oh, Miss Weber" and the teacher comes over and glares at him. We have a younger brother and sister who say that we did such a bad job in that scene that, as a result, none of us were ever asked to appear again in a movie. And my younger brother and sister were never in a movie. They blamed us completely!

HoFB: I read somewhere that there was an attempt to get them into Ben-Hur...

JWS: I don't remember that there was ever any attempt to get them in. They did both have these very elaborate costumes made for them by the costume department at Cinecittà. They were wonderful costumes. My brother and sister were six and eight. My brother had this wonderful Roman soldier costume made for him, with a helmet, you know, and the whole thing was just fantastic. My sister had a woman's kind of toga. The Roman soldier costume has passed around our family, and my two sons both wore it as a Halloween costume.

HoFB: Roman Holiday was notable for being shot on the streets of Rome, helping to take Hollywood out of a studio-bound mindset. Did you enjoy life on location with your family there?

JWS: Oh, yeah. Although I was in school in Switzerland for most of the time. I was in Rome during the summer, when he was first shooting the film. It was a lot of fun, and my father had lots of fun making that movie. It was the first movie he made in Europe on location, and I guess it was the first big Hollywood movie that had been made in Rome. I remember my parents saying how the city authorities leaned over backwards to make it easy for them to film there, closing off streets and all the stuff that's much harder to get done today. My father had just the most wonderful time, and my mother as well, living there while making this movie. They just had the best time, and my father ended up buying... well, I don't know if he bought it or if it was given to him... a Vespa, like Gregory Peck had in Roman Holiday . He careened around and then brought it back to the States with him. We were living in Beverly Hills when he had it. We had a weekend house in Palm Springs, and that's where he took it, and we have lots of home movies of the whole family piled on this Vespa: my father, my mother, the four of us. We even have one with the dog!

HoFB: I'd like to go back to the Best Years Of Our Lives, which is just a tremendous film. One of the very best of all the Oscar Best Picture winners. That film, and your father's direction in particular, have been praised as unusually sensitive in portraying a character who lost his hands in World War II. Your father lost most of his hearing in an accident while shooting documentaries of the war in Europe. Was his deafness something that was publicly known at the time?

JWS: It wasn't something that he was trying to keep a secret. He was deaf in one ear. He could hear in the other ear, so he wasn't totally deaf. He did come back from the war with that injury wondering if he'd ever be able to direct, because at first it was much more serious. I think that did give him a lot of empathy with the character you mentioned. And also just the experience of coming back and having to adjust to their old lives, or new lives. I think that made it very personal.

HoFB: Is it a coincidence that the Silent Film Festival uses American Sign Language interpreters for all the film introductions and q-and-a's? Was that policy something you brought to the festival?

JWS: No, no. That was not something I had anything to do with. In fact, I think it predated my being part of the festival. But it's such a natural for our audience because, I would guess, silent films could be very attractive to people who are hearing-impaired.

HoFB: In 2002 the festival brought the silent version of a William Wyler film called Hell's Heroes.

JWS: Yes, and that was the centennial of my father's birth, which is why they chose that one. And actually the year that I went to Pordenone for the first time with my siblings, they showed that.

HoFB: What was it like to bring Hell's Heroes to the Castro screen, and to the Silent Film Festival audience?

JWS: Well, it was wonderful, naturally. To get to see these films on a big screen with live music in an old movie palace. I mean, as you know, there's nothing like it! It was thrilling, and that year we were able to get Terrence Stamp to introduce the film. Obviously, he wasn't a silent film actor, but it's harder and harder to find any of those these days! It was wonderful to have him give some reminiscences about working with my father on the Collector. So, it was a wonderful, wonderful evening. Most of my siblings were there, and other family, and of course my kids were there, and my husband, and it was just great.

HoFB: Do you often watch your father's films?

JWS: I watch them from time to time. I have DVDs of most of them, the ones that are available. But there's just nothing like seeing a movie on a big screen. I have to say I much prefer seeing a film in a theatre, if it's possible. Of course, that's not always possible.

HoFB: Hopefully somebody will put together a full retrospective of his films one of these days!

JWS: Wouldn't that be nice? We'd love that! When I say "we" I mean the family. We would encourage that, and support that, and work for that in any way we could. That would be great!

HoFB: Is there anything else you think film buffs might like to know about your father?

JWS: Well, he was my father, so I'm biased, but growing up, I never thought that much about the fact that I was the daughter of this well-known film director. It's only in my adulthood that I've begun to appreciate what he brought to the craft. But as a human being, he was a really wonderful guy. He was not only interesting, he was funny, with a wonderful sense of humor. He was a humanitarian, and cared very deeply about all kinds of causes, and was just a great person. I feel very proud to have had him for my father.

HoFB: Well, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with me, and with the readers of this Blog-a-Thon!

JWS: You're very welcome!

Wednesday, September 12


The Mill Valley Film Festival is turning 30

Yesterday morning I attended a screening of Tamara Jenkins' the Savages following a press conference announcing the full program of films, parties, and other events for the Mill Valley Film Festival, which celebrates its 30th year of existence this year. The Savages, which includes few human characters under 30, is one of the festival's two opening night films on October 4th. It kicks things off at the Sequoia Theatre in Mill Valley, while Ang Lee's Lust, Caution plays at the nearby Rafael Film Center. Not an "official" opening night film, but also playing the Sequoia on the 4th, will be Wes Anderson's the Darjeeling Limited.

I'm not supposed to write much about the Savages until closer to its theatrical engagement in December, which suits me fine. Well into watching the film, I realized I would probably need to see it again before I'd be able to make an evaluative judgment about it. For its first two-thirds, I found myself resisting the film's tone; it felt like a sneering dramedy designed to make the audience feel glad we're better than the "horrible, horrible, horrible people" played by Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. But by the final few reels, I'd started warming to the transforming characters, and surprisingly, to the film itself. I'm curious to learn how it'll play from the outset, knowing the narrative in advance...

In the meantime, I'm extremely excited about the October 7 & 9 performances of a Dmitri Shostakovich score for Battleship Potemkin by the Marin Symphony at the Veterans' Memorial Auditorium in San Rafael. Of course the film will be projected as well (I've never seen it except on VHS). More revival screenings of great interest are an October 8 screening of Wild Boys of the Road, William Wellman's pre-code talkie update of Beggars of Life (same train-hopping milieu, different actors and story) and an October 6th screening of John Korty's the Crazy Quilt.

The slate of new films at the festival looks like it holds a great deal of promise, particularly the festival foci on the recent cinema of India (7 Islands and Metro looks interesting), Germany (Yella comes praised) and Romania (the Paper Will be Blue, the Way I Spent the End of the World, and California Dreamin' represent this currently-fashionable national cinema). A documentary I've been greatly anticipating called Welcome to Nollywood will take a look at the thriving Nigerian videofilm industry. I'm excited that the film will also play here on the South Side of the Golden Gate Bridge, at the SF Art Institute October 9th. A comparatively big-budget Nollywood film called Laviva will also be part of the festival, playing in Marin on October 7th and 8th.

I'm also curious about the three new digital features by longtime MVFF stalwart Rob Nilsson. One of the three (I'm feeling too shy to say which one) could actually have a bit of footage of yours truly in it, as I spent a day as an extra on the set.

The list of 30th Mill Valley Film Festival programs is now available online. Take a peek and tell me what looks good to you in the comments below, if you like.

Monday, September 10


Steamboat Buster

This coming Wednesday, the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, one of the very best venues on Frisco Bay to view silent films with live musical accompaniment, will screen a pair of Buster Keaton features with Christian Elliot performing at the Wurlitzer organ: Steamboat Bill, Jr. and the Navigator. Though it was filmed partially in this city, and is reputedly among his most crowd-pleasing films, I've never seen the Navigator. I've been saving it for just such an opportunity to be pleased by it among an appreciative crowd in a theatre like the Stanford.

Steamboat Bill Jr. I have seen, on video years ago as I was first acquainting myself with Keaton's work. I count it among my favorites and am really looking forward to finally seeing it in 35mm. In the meantime, I thought I'd contribute to Thom Ryan's current Slapstick Blog-A-Thon by taking a closer look at one particular gag from the film, one of the most renowned gags Keaton (or anyone) ever performed. Though calling it a gag may be inaccurate, as it's really more nerve-wracking than funny. In fact, Lincoln Spector says it's "probably the most thrilling and dangerous stunt ever performed by a major star." If you've seen Steamboat Bill, Jr. before, you already know what gag/stunt I'm talking about. If you haven't, and you want to remain oblivious to one of the film's most breathtaking surprises, you'd better not continue reading this entry.

The concept of Steamboat Bill, Jr. was generated by frequent Charlie Chaplin collaborator Charles Reisner, who then co-directed the film with Keaton. Reisner is in fact the only director in the film's credits, as Keaton often relinquished official credit for the films he directed. This was the final film he made with the independence accorded during his longtime professional relationship with his brother-in-law and producer Joseph Schenck, before signing up with MGM in a move that many claim led to Keaton's artistic and creative downfall. As Sherlock, Jr. had taken its title from the fictional detective Keaton's character wanted to emulate, so too was Steamboat Bill, Jr. named for a character best known from a popular song. I'm not going to recount the film's plot. For my current purposes, it's merely important to know that at one point in the film Keaton's character Willie finds himself in bed, with the walls and roof over his head torn off and blown away by a cyclone. The winds carry his four-legged craft down the street, in an image somewhat reminiscent of Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend or another Winsor McCay fantasy.

Soon the bed has been pushed in front of a large wooden house. Keaton has, as is his wont in any weather, fallen. This time, out of the bed and onto his head. The front wall of the house has been separated from the rest of the building, revealing a gaping crack and a terrified man on the top floor of the house. This bearded fellow jumps out of an open window, his fall softened by the bed sitting in the street below, and the would-be steamboat captain underneath it. The man runs away, and the bed is picked up by the wind and follows. No sooner has a rather battered and dazed Willie slowly stood up and staggered forward a few steps, than all two tons of the house's façade has crashed down all around him, the actor only saved from being crushed because of the open window he was perfectly placed underneath. The stunt, more than anything else he ever shot, emphasizes that aspect of the Buster Keaton screen persona which depends on an unwitting collaboration with fate or the forces of nature for his survival. And though Keaton-as-Willie survives through dumb luck, Keaton-as-actor's luck was not dumb; he knew what he was getting into. He had practiced a far less dangerous version of the gag using lighter walls in previous films Back Stage and One Week. He confidently, meticulously planned out the mechanics of the falling wall, giving himself only a few inches of clearance. Had there been the slightest glitch in the execution, Keaton would have been "Steamrolled Bill," and he knew it.

I heard about this sequence before I saw it. The way I was told, Keaton, who joked about suicide relatively frequently in his films (in Hard Luck and Daydreams, for example), was suicidal on the day of the stunt's filming. Several sources claim that just the day before, Keaton had been unexpectedly informed by Schenck that this would be their last film together. While crew members looked away, and even Reisner abandoned the set to pray in his tent, Keaton felt so despondent about his uncertain professional future that he was perfectly willing to risk, or perhaps even court, death. I haven't done the research to be sure if this version of events is the true one; it holds a ring of plausibility, but it may also be making more of a late-in-life quote from Keaton, "I was mad at the time, or I would never have done the thing," than was intended.

Whether or not the real turmoil inside Keaton during this stunt outmatched the simulated turmoil of the cyclone created by Keaton's production team, the result was iconic. Robert Knopf writes:
By showing the wall fall in one shot, Keaton emphasized his own performance: his ability to calculate and execute this stunt as well as his bravery (some would say his foolishness) in performing it himself.
The face-on, unbroken long-shot view is somehow reminiscent of the theatre, or at least it is until the moment of collapse. But again, "unbroken" may be a somewhat inaccurate descriptor. Though the camera holds its view of the entire house from before the moment its façade begins to tumble, until after it has landed, the impact of the shot is augmented by the shots preceding it. Though my research has been far from exhaustive, I have yet to find an analysis of this stunt that discusses the shots directly leading up to the death-defying one. Let me try a little, with screencaps.

Six shots prior, in the final profile view that puts the cracking façade and Buster in the same frame, we can clearly see the distance between the wall and the actor's position on the street. (He's under the bed.)

The next five shots do not contradict this geography, and the last of these is a full shot that ends with Keaton taking a few steps forward and away from the house. He still doesn't seem far enough from the building to escape being flattened should it fall.

But the next edit is a deceptive one. It's difficult to perceive this, even when analyzing the shots on DVD, but in the iconic wall-tumbling shot, Keaton is standing further from the house than he was just prior to the cut. He must be, or else he would be crushed.

I strongly suspect that even if we aren't anticipating the collapse, we on perhaps a less-than-conscious level assimilate this spatial discrepancy, and factor it into our horrified reaction of seeing the façade begin to come down, and our commensurate relief when our hero is spared by the open window. It makes the effect all the more impressive, and it exploits a dimension of the motion picture medium that, apart from certain observations by Rudolf Arnheim in his seminal Film as Art, I do not often encounter when reading film criticism: the control a filmmaker has over the perception of relative distances between objects in the frame, due to the nature of transposing three-dimensional space onto a flat surface.

A thrilling stunt like this one remains exciting to watch again and again. I'm not so sure a modern-day computer-generated effect can have the same kind of staying power, but that's a subject for another post sometime. It's no coincidence that successful silent-era comedians specialized in them. Chaplin would upon occasion perform a dangerous stunt, perhaps most memorably the Circus's high-wire scene in which he is beset by capuchin monkeys. And if there's any stunt sequence more breathtaking and iconic than Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr. heart-stopper, it's surely Harold Lloyd climbing a department store and dangling from a giant clock in Safety Last (which, Frisco Bay audiences take note, is opening a week-long classic film series at the Piedmont Theatre in Oakland on September 28th.)

But here's a legitimate question about some of these stunts that provoke more gasps than laughter: is it slapstick? Is it perhaps beyond slapstick? Our host of this Blog-a-Thon has proposed that the key to slapstick is that, though violence may be "unexpected, socially unacceptable [and] exaggerated for effect" it must be "staged so that we know that no one has sustained permanent injury." How does it work in gag situations in which there is threat of violence, but the violence is averted? Is slapstick funny because of schadenfreude? If so, are gags in which the victim escapes injury or humiliation as funny as those where he or she apparently (thanks to the illusion of film) doesn't?

What do you think?

Tuesday, September 4


Welcome Back!

From wherever you were this weekend: Burning Man, Telluride, or just a three-day bender in your apartment. If you were out of town or otherwise out of reach, you missed an excellent MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS evening at the Castro Theatre to ring in the weekend. Can you believe I'd never seen Footloose before? I enjoyed it. I must have been in the mood to watch a game of tractor-chicken set to the music of Bonnie Tyler. The event included an in-person appearance with Rene Daalder, director of Massacre at Central High from 1976. He shared his thoughts about this caustic film about power dynamics in human social systems (which I'd also never seen before), including his fascination with gravity (the murder weapon for several of the most memorable slayings) and his disgust with the soundtrack imposed on the film (so bad he disowned the film and hadn't seen it all the way through in decades until now). MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS host Jesse Ficks revealed that, along with his two previously-announced upcoming events at the Castro in September, he'll be hosting a Wes Craven triple bill there in October, a disco nite in November (featuring Staying Alive, Fame and the Apple), and a Burt Reynolds three-fur before the year is out.

On Saturday for the first time I attended the SF Underground Short Film Festival, which is the annual close of Peaches Christ's Midnight Mass series at the Bridge Theatre. As with nearly any shorts program, there were some duds among the selections, but the wheat-to-chaff ratio was higher than I'd expected. My favorites of the pieces made by people I don't know were the two installments of Winds of Time by Jose Montesinos, and I Know What Girls Like by Steffen Frech. But my main incentive in attending was to see the premiere of new work by a couple of filmmakers I'm friends with (who, as far as I know, don't know each other), Lev and Placenta Ovaries. It's funny you should ask, but no, that isn't his real name. And the only other one of his videos I've seen, I had the strong urge to walk out of during practically the entire movie. But his new bulimia comedy No Fatties, though of course completely offensive and wrong, is comparatively quite watchable. I only found myself wondering if I was starting to taste my own bile at one point during the video. As for Lev, well you likely already know that his Tales of Mere Existence cartoons are all terrific and genuine and funny and just right. His latest, How We Managed To Not Really Date Each Other, must be his most ambitious in the series, and it may be his best yet. His shorts received the heartiest applause of the evening, and deservedly so.

With the close of the Midnight Mass season, Landmark Theatre midnight movies now move to the Clay, with a line-up of films diverse enough to begin this coming weekend with a 21+ only "White Russian" night with the Big Lebowski, and include November 2-3 screenings of the Wizard of Gore with Herschell Gordan Lewis in person, and November 9-10 screenings of Guy Maddin's Cowards Bend the Knee. Palo Alto's Aquarius and Oakland's Piedmont (currently celebrating its 90th anniversary as a movie theatre) have new midnight movie schedules up too.

I also watched the hit film by Lee Sang-il, Hula Girls, at the Four Star, that theatre's latest offering of a Japanese film distributed by Viz Pictures. There was a trailer for the next one, the Taste of Tea, which opens October 5th. I absolutely must see this one. Hula Girls was a pretty conventional film in the dance/sport movie mold, and worked best as a showcase for some appealing actors. I was most impressed with Aoi Yu, who won the Japanese Academy Award for best supporting actress, and who you may remember from Harmful Insect and All About Lily Chou-Chou.

Thanks to a reader tip, I tried out a fun little free miniature golf course on the corner of Octavia and Hayes on Saturday. The course took me through the history of Hayes Valley, including a hole devoted to the great film shot there by Erich von Stroheim, Greed. A video projection of Greed (it has not yet been determined which version will be screened, though we can be sure it won't be the ten-hour-long one) will be held the location on the evening of September 29th.

It's been long enough since my last post that there are a lot more upcoming screenings to take note of. The first place to look is undoubtedly Johnny Ray Huston's big fall preview in a recent Bay Guardian. He notes coming film events at just about every venue in town, including highlights from brand-new calendars for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SF Cinematheque and Other Cinema. But I'd like to comment on a few particular items he's pointed out, and elaborate with a few more intriguing offerings that have appeared on the horizon since his deadline.

Most time-sensitive is a pair of screenings of the Soviet silent film My Grandmother with a score by Beth Custer, formerly of the Club Foot Orchestra. She and her merry band of musicians will be performing tonight at the Jewish Community Center in Berkeley and tomorrow at Dolby Labs (RSVP required at the latter), as a benefit to raise funds for a tour to Russia and elsewhere in Europe.

The Madcat Women's International Film Festival runs September 11-26, and will be showing at least one film I have seen and can strongly recommend. The Days And the Hours is a short, poetic documentary giving voice to some of the people who sleep on the pews at St. Bonaface Church, and it plays on a program entitled "At the Margins" at Artists' Television Access on September 14th. That's just one of 11 programs in this festival's annual celebration of films by women directors. Another program I'm particularly intrigued by is the September 19th tribute to the recently-murdered filmmaker Helen Hill, an outdoor screening which will take place in the backyard of the El Rio bar.

Huston mentions that the Arab Film Festival (October 18-28) will be screening a Tunisian documentary about the making of a video called Tarzan of the Arabs. That must be nothing other than one of my very favorite films seen at Sundance earlier this year, Nejib Belkadhi's VHS-Kahloucha. It follows a truly DIY filmmaker named Moncef Kahloucha, who puts together low-budget action films on the streets of his hometown, the seaside resort of Sousse. The film satisfies on just about every level imaginable: memorable characters including Kahloucha and his cast and crew, plenty of action and gut-busting comedy, strong production values including a pitch-perfect musical soundtrack, and even a peek into social stratification in Sousse, where Kahloucha and his friends live in a downtrodden neighborhood remote from the cash-infused tourist areas of town.

One of the Arab Film Festival's venues will be the Roxie, which for the first time in a year has a new glossy printed calendar available around town. More festival highlights found on this document include a September 22nd all-day reprise of award-winning favorites from this past June's Frameline Film Festival. This months-later recap is a tremendously good idea that I hope other film festivals take note of and try out; I missed all of these selections (including Red Without Blue and Glue) the first time around. The 10th United Nations Association Film Festival makes an appearance October 18th prior to its October 24-28 stint at Stanford University. From November 6-9 the theatre will host the Global Lens 2007 film series (including a chance to see Garin Nugroho's Of Love and Eggs. And on November 18th it's the Fifth Annual 3rd i Festival of South Asian cinema. In addition, the Roxie will have free screenings of Fernando de Fuentes films each Sunday morning in November, and on November 23-29 will host a week of recently-rediscovered RKO films from the 1930's, including several pre-code titles, and a film starring Irene Dunne and directed by William Wellman called Stingaree. I can't pass up a film with a title like that, especially when directed by one of my pet under-appreciated filmmakers.

Oh, and if that's not enough, look what the Castro has promised for select Tuesdays and Wednesdays in October and November: a 15 film Ingmar Bergman retrospective.

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