Friday, July 29


The Mayor of Hell (no, not Gavin Newsom)

I finally made it over to the Pacific Film Archive's Pre-Code film series last night. It was a double bill of Warner Brothers films originally released a week apart in June 1933, both of which have a lot to say about depression-era society: Heroes For Sale starring Richard Barthelmess, and The Mayor of Hell, starring James Cagney.

Edith Kramer was on hand to introduce the films, and she pointed out that the Warner studio of this era was famous for pulling storylines for its movies out of the latest newspapers. Thus their films gained a reputation for having a "real-life" feel to them, as opposed to (though I'm drifting from Kramer's point and over-generalizing) the dreamy confections of Paramount or the glamorous, middlebrow-oriented efforts of MGM. Sometimes, I feel, it makes Warner films seem a little unfocused, as if there was uncertainty about exactly how to combine the latest news stories. But one advantage is that the audience can get a running start at understanding a character if he or she seems to be just like someone we've read about in a newspaper; it's another weapon alongside the star persona and the stereotype in helping make characters quickly relatable so we can get on with the story. And though one might think it would make it harder for the films to hold up to modern scrutiny, there are so many pre-code Warner films that are perfectly enjoyable today, from Gold Diggers of 1933 (playing the PFA at 5:30 this Sunday) to Doctor X to Five Star Final to Night Nurse that the notion falls apart.

Though on a first pass neither Heroes for Sale nor the Mayor of Hell holds up quite as well as those four films, they both are well worth a look if you're interested in film and/or politics of 1933. Both films allow the viewer to dream about an alternative to the kind of democracy found in the "real world". Former legionnaire "Wild Bill" Wellman directed Heroes For Sale, which probably explains why the opening scenes of cowardice and betrayal on the battlefield of World War I feel particularly unglamorous. Richard Barthelmess (who six years later got to play the coward-makes-good role in Only Angels Have Wings) comes back from the war a morphine addict, thanks to a stay in a German P.O.W. hospital. He gets a job in a bank, thanks to the officer who took credit for his war heroism. But his addiction gets the better of him and he is forced to go into rehab, even though he knows the stigma of it will break his mother's heart. Upon release he makes a fresh start working at a laundry, where he helps introduce a labor-saving device that eventually loses him a job, along with most of the factory's employees. Wrongly accused of leading a full-scale worker's revolt, he lands in jail and eventually on the road as a tramp trying to make his way through the Great Depression.

It's a lot of plot to cram into 70-something minutes. I didn't even go into the family he starts with Loretta Young, the "female best friend" role played by Aline MacMahon, Robert Barrat's knee-jerk communist character and his sudden transformation, and of course the ending which brings the story full circle. It's too much to really process in one viewing really. But I did want to comment on a fascinating aspect of the Barthelmess character in the second half of the film: his place in the boxcars and under the bridges of the American countryside is not the result merely of bad luck or bad character; on the contrary, he takes a moral stance to join the downtrodden as a sort of penance for his previous ambitiousness. Thus we have, despite Robert Barrat's cartoonish portrayal of a socialist, a real socialist message at the heart of the film.

The Mayor of Hell is even richer with political significance, as well as with stereotyped characterizations. James Cagney's standard gangster character is plopped down in a reform school. The group of boys we follow into the school are portrayed in the spirit of Our Gang (at least one of the kids is played by a former member of the Hal Roach troupe, Allen "Farina" Hopkins), though just enough older and meaner to make for a drama rather than comedy. The headmaster (Dudley Digges) cuts corners, cooks the books, and intentionally breaks the spirit of his charges. When Cagney gets appointed Deputy Commissioner as a political favor, he expects it to be a source for more gravy until he falls in love with the school nurse (Madge Evans), whose copy of a book called "Fundamental Principles of Juvenile Government" inspires him to reform the school based on an idealized democratic model. The youths select their own mayor (the brainy kid), police chief (a brawny kid with an Edward G. Robinson affectation), and treasurer (the meek Jewish kid, of course). Everything works swimmingly until Cagney gets drawn into the world of his criminal connections in the city, and in his absence democracy breaks down into fascism followed by violent revolution.

Though the film has a scapegoat in the form of Mr. Thompson the headmaster, its clear that, just as the cringe-worthy stereotypes of the boys' parents pleading for their children at juvenile court shows the family to be ineffectual in the face of youth crime, so too is the state unequipped to deal with it. It is corrupt and over-authoritarian. The only hope for social change is pinned onto Cagney the benevolent gangster, a man who can fix the system by moving around its traditions and laws. Though it seems naive that the delinquents so neatly accept Cagney's program for change (though the film acknowledges the importance, and the difficulty, of having the youths' self-appointed leaders buy in first), it's clear that the film is suggesting this method of revitalizing American government and democracy. And it's fascinating that the impetus for reform comes through a woman. The message, of course, is that men are corrupt but some can become uncorrupted through love.

Whew! Wrote more on those than I'd expected to. But before I go, I have some good news and some bad news. First the bad news: I've been informed (by separate sources) that, not only has the Red Vic's Midnights For Maniacs series I mentioned in a previous entry been cancelled, but also that neither the Four Star nor the Presidio will host midnight movies this year either (counter to long-standing rumor). Looks like the last few chances for midnight movies this summer are all at the Bridge: Barbarella on July 30, Teen Witch August 6, Showgirls August 12-13 and the Underground Film Festival August 20.

The good news: the schedules for the Asian Film Festival to be held August 11-21 at the Four Star and the Presidio are floating around the city. Pick one up and let me know what you're excited to see!

Sunday, July 24


Big Flop Pee-Wee

Last night I went to the Bridge Theatre for Peaches Christ's midnight presentation of one of my favorite films of all-time, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. What can I say about that film? Before the show (after a performance of a spoof skit "Peaches' Playhouse") the drag queen talked about her former life as a teenage goth who wore black and listened only to dirgelike music by Bauhaus. Yet she would put on Tim Burton's film all the time, as it was the "only thing in the world that made me smile." Though my affection for the film doesn't come from a story quite like that, I think many in the sold-out crowd have similar histories with the film (there were many attendees in Pee-Wee costumes, and the guy sitting two seats down from me was quietly reciting practically every line of dialogue.)

What makes this film resonate so strongly with so many of my (approximate) generation? What makes it continue to find new fans 20 years after its initial release? I don't have any concrete theories, but I do have a sense that somehow the Pee-Wee Herman character, as portrayed in his television series but especially in this film (which, in case you're fuzzy on your 80's pop culture history, came first), represents a very attractive vision of non-adulthood. Pee-Wee acts like a child, playing with a fire engine the first thing after getting out of bed in the morning, maintaining his lawn with a Water Wiggle, and using childish retorts to disarm his rivals. But though he looks odd he definitely is not a child. Was a whole generation who saw this film as kids (I was twelve and in no hurry to be a teenager at the time, so I think I qualify) exposed to the idea of an adult functioning (if barely) in the adult world, yet holding firmly onto childlike behavior? Is this part of the explanation for so many young, and even not quite so young, adults maintaining an arrested adolescence these days? Who knows?

Today I appreciate the film for its succinct, cinematic style. Paul Reubens' and Phil Hartman's script beautifully utilizes cultural archetypes such as the spoiled rich kid, the prison escapee, and the motorcycle gang, but tweaks them just a tad, to make them seem real in Pee-Wee's (and director Tim Burton's) stylized universe. Danny Elfman's score may be little more than a love letter to Nino Rota's music for 8 1/2, but damn if it doesn't work with this material. But Pee-Wee has also become something of a gay icon (perhaps he always was), as evidenced by the crowd at the Bridge. The line he gives the valley girl at the bike shop, "There's a lotta things about me you don't know anything about, Dottie. Things you wouldn't understand. Things you couldn't understand. Things you shouldn't understand." drew the loudest roar of applause of the night. Perhaps this was in light of Mr. Reubens' 1991 arrest, or perhaps just because its an inherently funny line. But I'm sure many see Pee-Wee's rejection of Dottie as a sign of his gayness. I'm more likely to think of him as a pre-sexual being; a boy who, like Dan Savage's 6-year-old son, simply is at the maturity level where he thinks of the idea of a girlfriend as "icky."

Either way, its clear why everything about Big Top Pee Wee, the 1988 sequel directed by Randal Klesier, doesn't work at all. It tries to have Pee-Wee grow out of that pre-sexual (or homosexual, depending on your perspective) phase by placing him in a love triangle between two women. The moment when Valerie Golino's Gina and Pee-Wee engage in Hollywood's longest screen kiss is mildly amusing in an over-the-top way, but it fatally undercuts Pee-Wee's character, who had already been partially undercut by a scene when he tries to hump his schoolteacher fiancée (Penelope Ann Miller) on a picnic blanket. Love is simply not the right motivator for Pee Wee, unless it's love of something a child can relate to like a bicycle. His other passion expressed in the sequel is his desire to join the circus already amply staffed by such talent as Kris Kristofferson, Susan Tyrell and Benicio Del Toro. At least it's an appropriate desire for the character. Too bad it keeps him tethered to the small town where he's inexplicably disliked by practically every other resident (only to set up a moment of supposedly magical whimsy late in the film, by which point we no longer much care.) Pee-Wee's Big Adventure derives much of its charm from the plotlessness inherent in the road movie genre it inhabits. The entire midsection of the film has no meaning to Pee Wee's quest for his bicycle; its a wild goose chase concocted by the fraudulent seer Madame Ruby. By contrast, Big Top Pee Wee tries to let events pile up on each other in a semblance of logical order. It doesn't work. Pee Wee feels too reigned-in by this structure. This is leaving alone the typical pitfalls of sequel-itis that the film exemplifies, such as the recycled lines of dialogue that invariably lose their impact in the new context and only serve to remind of the original film's superiority. And the mirrored devices like the opening dream sequence followed by the breakfast-making scene, the "let's put on a show" finale, etc. Add on the fact that Elfman was unable to reuse the one element that might have been a welcome continuity from the first film, its musical themes (due to the fact that the two films were produced at separate studios) and there's really very little to hold your attention to the screen except to count the misjudgements.

I'd long been told to avoid Big Top Pee Wee, and I'd long avoided it, as if in fear that seeing it might even taint my opinion of the Tim Burton film. I'm glad to say that after finally watching it on DVD this afternoon, 12 hours after seeing the original, the sequel's total failure has not made me think one iota less of the magnificent Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.

Thursday, July 21


Hey, check out my thing that's not a blog!

So the new issue of Senses of Cinema came out earlier today, and with it my article on the San Francisco International Film Festival. It's almost certainly the longest thing I've written since college, which may not be the best way to sell it to a potential reader, but it makes me happy because I think it has more unity than my 2004 piece. And it took less time to write (not that either was a breeze). Even at 3000 words or so I couldn't pack in all the ideas I wanted to but I'm still pretty happy with the result. Let me know what you think, nitpicks included. Be brutally honest.

Good news! The new Balboa calendar indicates that two of the films I most regretted missing at this year's festival, Jia Zhang-ke's The World and Thomas Riedelsheimer's Touch the Sound, will be playing in my neighborhood in mid-September! And two I was disappointed to miss at the 2003 festival will play in August: the French Fear & Trembling (August 4-10) and the Argentinian Historias Minimas (August 26-September 1). Other highlights include a week of the classic I Am Cuba (September 30-October 6) and a pair of silent films with music by the Devil Music Ensemble: Murnau's incredible Nosferatu and a more obscure pick Big Stakes, both on October 13.

I didn't make much of a fuss about the Louis Malle retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive when I found out about it because director retrospectives at the PFA are a pretty regular occurance, and I rarely am able to travel to Berkeley for more than a few programs in a series, even when the director is a particular favorite like Anthony Mann or Hiroshi Teshigahara. I should have read the fine print; though they're showing 11 Malle films in Berekeley, the Balboa is going to be hosting 18 between August 11 and 25! This is the first time such a big retrospective of a single director has come to the Richmond district since I've been old enough to pay attention, and it's the biggest examination of a director Frisco has seen in a while; Yerba Buena does retros but they're always smaller. The Castro showed some Bergman and Welles last summer but they were nothing close to complete surveys. To get something this big without crossing the Bay or going down to Stanford you have to go back to the Ozus at the Castro in 2003 or maybe even the Fassbinders at the Roxie earlier that year.

So it's Louis Malle, who I must admit is not a director near the top of my list to delve into. But why not? I've only seen a single one of his films (My Dinner With Andre, which I definitely liked at the time and could easily revisit when it plays on a double-bill with Vanya on 42nd Street August 15) even though many of the titles are familiar to me: The Lovers and Murmur of the Heart (August 11-12), Au revoir les enfants and Lacombe, Lucien (August 19-20), etc. I guess he just hasn't been discussed much by the film writers I read most frequently, though one of my favorites, Jonathan Rosenbaum, put both Atlantic City (August 13 with Pretty Baby) and Zazie dans le Métro (August 23-25 with May Fools) on his recent Essential Cinema list. I''m already feeling excited by the prospect of near-virgin territory. I made it to about half the programs in the excellent Human/Nature series at the Balboa last month, and I think I can do at least as well with this Malle series. I hope so, and I hope lots of other folks can too, because I want Gary Meyer and the Balboa to keep the series programming going!

Sunday, July 17


Back from the wilderness; new Red Vic schedule

I just got back from a trip in the Sierra Nevada mountains, far away from Frisco and its movie houses. So I haven't seen any more films since the Silent Film Festival, except for the Tai Seng DVD of Hong Sang-Soo's the Power of Kangwon Province, which I popped in just before the trip. Excellent 1998 effort from the director of the Day the Pig Fell Into a Well and Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, and perhaps a fitting one just before a vacation in the wilderness.

Just thought I'd take a peek at the new Red Vic calendar: it seems like maybe more second-run selections than they've been programming of late, but that's okay; I still haven't gotten around to seeing stuff like Palindromes (July 20-21), Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Aug 9-11), Layer Cake (Aug. 19-20), and Part Two of The Best of Youth (Sept. 18-19; Part One plays Sept. 11-12). And there's stuff I'd recommend (and might even see again) like Sin City (July 28-30), Ong Bak: the Thai Warrior (Aug. 7-8), and the subtitled version of Howl's Moving Castle (Sept. 6-8). There are also premieres including Funny Ha Ha (Aug. 12-18), 24 hours on craigslist (Sept. 23-29), and Zombie Honeymoon (Oct. 20-26). All this seems to be at the expense of the revivals that usually pepper the schedule more liberally, but they did make room for The Warriors (Aug. 26-27), Brazil (Sept. 9-10) and Spirited Away (Sept. 13-14). And this might be my chance to finally watch Barbarella (Aug. 24-25) if I don't catch its midnight screening at the Bridge Theatre July 30 first. Which brings me to the most exciting part of the Red Vic calendar: three nights of Midnights For Maniacs selections from Jesse Ficks, who I've missed as part of the Four Star team for too long now. It's good to see him bringing midnight screenings to the Red Vic. Only three selections so far, but they're doozies: August 20th brings The Wiz, which of all the Sidney Lumet films I've never gotten around to seeing is probably the one that most piques my interest. August 27th is Garbage Pail Kids: the Movie which Jesse brought to a sold-out Four Star for one of the most riotous Midnight screenings I've ever been to. September 3rd is The Legend of Billy Jean, which is Christian Slater's first movie and sounds like a typically outrageous Jesse selection. I'd frankly never heard of it, which only gets me more excited.

Friday, July 8


Prepare for silence

This evening marks the beginning of the 10th Annual edition of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival at the Castro Theatre, and especially since I missed last year's festival due to a family commitment, I plan to be there (though I must admit I haven't bought tickets yet). This is perhaps my favorite of Frisco's many film festivals, and it's not just because I love silent films so much; it's also because its so well-run in every way, with great musicians, guest speakers, program guides, copresentations, etc. They've picked a great niche, to be sure; of all films I think it's silents that suffer most when projected poorly or watched on a television, so having a top-class festival of such films is a can't-miss proposition in my book. And they always have a great selection, mixing established (yet rarely-screened) classics with real discoveries from the vault. This year I've seen only one of the choices, Victor Sjöstrom's The Scarlet Letter starring Lillian Gish, and it fits in both categories. I'm not alone in thinking of it as the greatest film made by the Swedish director after coming to Hollywood and changing his name to Seastrom (though there may be more who would cite The Wind or He Who Gets Slapped) but the version being screened at 4PM on Sunday was recently restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and hasn't been shown very many places. The January 2004 Sjöstrom retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive, for example, showed the heavily cut version found on many cheap videocassettes and DVDs. The festival's version really bites; it's a cutting illustration of what makes America different from Europe, made by an immigrant who would really notice these things.

What else have they picked out? Well, I'm probably most excited about tonight's Harold Lloyd film For Heaven's Sake, not one of his most celebrated films but one few have seen. The Castro and the PFA are showing a lot of Harold's films this summer, but this is the only local screening scheduled to be scored by a live organist, Chris Elliott. King Vidor's anti-war the Big Parade was supposedly the biggest box-office hit of the 1920's, at least until sound and the Jazz Singer came along. The Clara Bow star vehicle It is a reprise from the 2001 festival and I'm sure they wouldn't play it again if it wasn't really good. Stage Struck is directed by Allan Dwan, who I want to become more familiar with. Sunday morning's The Sideshow sounds like a fascinating role for Little Billy Rhodes, who later played a Wizard of Oz munchkin. Add to that list a collection of animated films and a pair from the silent industries of Brazil and India, and I can easily imagine myself going to every single program, though realistically I know that isn't likely to happen.

Speaking of films being shown with live music accompaniment, I just noticed that SF Performances is putting together a weekend of Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqasti, accompanied by the Phillip Glass Ensemble performing live at Davies Hall next...February 17-19, 2006. Well you heard it here first, so mark your calendars and buy advance tickets. Funny that I find this out just after typing about Koyaanisqatsi in my last blog entry.

And while I'm cleaning up my desk, we're now in the thick of a new calendar for the Rafael Film Center up in Marin County. Notable picks include next Wednesday's 7PM screening of Sam Fuller's White Dog, next Thursday's 7PM screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark: the Adaptation (that's right, the teenager-made version), a week of Werner Herzog's Wheel of Time starting July 22, and a Greta Garbo mini-series in early September. I still haven't seen any of these films except for one of the Garbos (Ninotchka), so if you're driving up from Frisco and have space in the car let me know!

Finally, closer to (my) home, I noticed walking by the Four Star Theatre today that the banner for the 9th Asian Film Festival has been hung. The banner and website say it runs August 4-14, but the guy behind the ticket window told me to expect it from the 11th to the 28th instead, for some reason. Do with that what you will.

Tuesday, July 5


Life Out of Balance

I don't know if anybody out there is checking this site regularly yet, but in case somebody is, I apologize for the long break since my last entry. Back in the days before I'd heard the word "blog", when I used to post a round-up of short reactions to each film I'd seen since the last round-up, I usually did it once every week or two. We'll see how often I find myself able to write entries here.

So what have I been doing in the past week or so? Well, seeing quite a few movies for one. I saw three silent movies (Chang, Grass, and South) at the Balboa last week, though I'd seen two of them before. South was new for me, except for the fact that many clips had been incorporated into the 2000 documentary the Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Adventure. It was nice seeing these amazing images of a wooden ship travelling through the Antarctic ice without having to hear Liam Neeson's oh-so-earnest commentary (instead we were treated to a score by Nick Phelps, apparantly his first time playing keyboard accompaniment for a silent film, though he also incorporated his usual clarinet and flute playing as well). But I have to admit that the film's structure, at least in the version screened, left something to be desired. It felt a bit of a sanatized version of the events, especially with so much ancestral-to-March of the Penguins footage of playful emporers dominating the last reel or two.

Then I went to a music festival over the weekend, but the day after coming back (that, is, today) I couldn't resist attending one last program of the Balboa's Human/Nature series. This time it was Koyaanisqatsi, which I'd only ever seen on VHS before, and Chac, the Rain God which I'd never seen at all. The latter had been recommended as a good film about "rite of passage", and the scene of crossing the waterfall is pretty powerful in that regard, but as a whole I have to say I didn't find that the film really works. The direction given the non-professional actors makes them mostly seem stilted and self-conscious, unlike those in a De Sica or Bresson film. The camerawork is largely undistinguished despite the attractive Chiapas setting. And I hate to say it, but the optical effects by Pat O'Neill look nothing else but chinsey 30 years down the line.

Seeing Koyaanisqatsi on the big screen convinced me that it really is a good film, despite all of the grumblings of its detractors. I was afraid that after seeing (and loving) obvious precursors like Man With a Movie Camera and Fata Morgana in the past several months I might find Godfrey Reggio's 1983 film derivative. But I shouldn't have worried. Maybe it doesn't quite scale the heights of those earlier films but it definitely stands on its own merits, especially the segments with the greatest amount of on-screen motion. Sometimes I would deliberately let my eyes shift out of focus for a moment and watch abstract shapes and colors work their rhythms, then shift back for clearer perspective. There's just some awesome image-making in that movie.

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