Tuesday, August 30


Play Time

Sunday night I went to the Geary Theatre to watch the A.C.T. presentation of "The Overcoat," a play based on Nikolai Gogol's bleak short story and starring Peter Anderson as a civil servant who saves for a new overcoat. I'm not as experienced a play-goer as I'd like to be (though the past year or so this has improved), but this is one play that invites cinephile comment. I notice that many of the advance press blurbs being used in the advertising make reference to film directors like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Fritz Lang. The phenomenon of using such movie-centric names to sell live performance is an interesting phenomenon in itself; like the neverending parade of film-to-play remakes streaming down the "Great White Way" (some like The Producers with round-trip tickets) it seems like another admission that a) the overwhelming majority of our cultural references come from motion pictures and b) people are more likely to spend their entertainment dollars on something that reminds them of something they've seen before.

"The Overcoat" is not quite like anything I've seen before. It's a wordless play, so it makes sense that silent films might become a reference point for those looking for a shorthand way to describe it. But besides a giant cogwheel set piece that looks like it could have imported from Metropolis (though just as easily from Modern Times), I found little specific visual or thematic connection to Lang's films (at least, not to those that I've seen). And though the influence of mime is absolutely apparent, Anderson and the supporting actors use a far more exaggerated, expressionistic style of movement than either Charlie Chaplin, whose gags were so often designed for close-ups, or Buster Keaton, whose signature work inevitably required a natural or at least realistic environment for its humor.

If I were to join in the compare-play-to-film game, I'd first name F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh as an obvious predecessor. Both because its storytelling all but completely eschews the verbal (it contains one single intertitle) and because of its obvious thematic connection to Gogol's story: each portrays a man whose sense of worth is wrapped up in the splendor of a costume. Another that comes to mind is not a silent film at all: Jacques Tati's Playtime. Perhaps it was because I was sitting in the second balcony and had a view of the two-story set not unlike the one Mr. Hulot has of the office cubicles after he accidentally takes a ride on an elevator. Looking down on the stage and its placement of actors often making the same choreographed motions with geometric accuracy was an impressive sight to behold. Playtime and "the Overcoat" also share several general locations (street, office, sales floor, party), even if the recreation of a shadowy St. Petersburg on the Geary stage is something of a visual antithesis to the fluorescent, modernist Tativille.

The main element of "the Overcoat" that defies all the silent-film comparisons as well as the Tati one is its music. Each scene plays out to themes by the great composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich wrote quite a bit of film music, mostly to films now largely forgotten, though his 1942 score for Eistenstein's Potemkin is still one of the most commonly-played scores for that film. His music is clearly the major source of inspiration for all the movement, to the point where it even becomes unclear whether to call the participants actors or dancers. My very favorite moment was when our protagonist goes to the police station to report a crime, and the officers move something like a pair of hydraulic androids, taking twice as many beats to make a motion as he does. It's a great example of expressionism, in that it uses exaggerated physical gesture to evoke the sheer slowness of bureaucracy and the ordinary citizen's powerlessness, and it seems to fit with the Shostokovitch perfectly, as do most of the scenes. Cinephiles might smile as I did when they notice that the final scene plays out to the same waltz Stanley Kubrick used for his Eyes Wide Shut.

Gogol's story was made into a 1926 silent film by Grigory Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg (who in the sound era would work with Shostakovich as well) that has apparantly been released on DVD in Russia. This is something I'd like to see, and I may have to do some research into importing it. In the meantime, I'm tempted to go see "The Overcoat" again before its run ends September 25. Though it's not a play I found myself strongly responding to emotionally, the sheer spectacle of the actors' movements, whether comedic or symbolic of the human struggle, was simply dazzling to behold. In fact it was really too much to take in during a single viewing, and it would be nice to re-experience it all as Noel Burch demanded Playtime be seen: "from several different seats in the theatre".



I'm still getting used to the intricacies of blogging. Or, maybe more like the basics: like saving drafts often. A few days ago I accidentally wiped out a fairly substantial entry about the various film festivals and series coming to the Bay Area this fall. Since I don't expect to find myself in the mood to reconstruct it, let me just direct you to Johnny Ray Huston's preview in the latest Bay Guardian. He covers basically everything I would have, though with different emphases. The only major item left out is the Lark Theater in Marin, which is showing all three of James Dean's films over the week of September 2-8. I've added the Larkspur theatre to my sidebar too.

Saturday, August 20


Pacific Film Archive calendar: September-October

The next calendar for Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive looks very enticing. In addition to the focus on British Silent Cinema that I mentioned in my last entry (which will include Hitchcock's Downhill, which he made directly after his more well-known The Lodger), there's work by Derek Jarman, Peter Kubelka, Elem Klimov and Larissa Shepitko, and a September 11 theatrical premiere of the great maverick director Rob Nilsson's new film Security, which won the Audience Choice Award at the 2005 Greencine Online Film Festival.

Labor day weekend provides a double-bill in the A Theatre Near You "non series" (as Robert Davis called it) meant to provide Berkeley residents opportunities to see new touring film prints that otherwise wouldn't make it to the East Bay. Well, Au Hasard Balthazar, which they played this past May, never made it to the Frisco side either, and now they're showing another monumental Bresson work that hasn't played anywhere around in years: Pickpocket (in fact, I'm pretty sure the PFA is the last place to have screened a print of the Dostoevsky-inspired film). The bill is filled out with Orson Welles' Confidential Report.

The excellent traveling series curated by Alla Verlotsky and Kent Jones, Films From Along the Silk Road, makes another swing through the Bay Area, featuring five of the six features (unfortunately not my favorite, Kairat) that played the Yerba Buena Center in May 2004, including the vivid epic The Fall of Otrar, as well as ten more films that didn't make it to the Frisco event. Most of them are either newer of older than the selections from the 1970's and 1990's that played at Yerba Buena. Especially exciting is a 1928 silent film from the region called The Roof of the World. The series plays most Thursdays and Fridays throughout September, timed to coincide with a conference regarding the region being held on the UC Berkeley campus that month.

What I'm personally most excited about, however, is October's tie-in with the San Francisco Opera's upcoming premiere of the new John Adams / Peter Sellars opera, Doctor Atomic. Steve Seid has plucked films from diverse genres, countries and time periods to build a fascinating cross-section of film in the nuclear age. Everything from 1947 Hollywood's The Beginning or the End? to Akira Kurosawa's I Live in Fear to Bruce Conner's Crossroads (pictured) to the Adam Curtis BBC series Pandora's Box is included. I'm going to be busy.

On an unrelated note: according to the ever-reliable Lincoln Spector, several of the Harold Lloyd films playing at the Castro this week will include live musical accompaniment after all: starting with tomorrow's Welcome Danger (though not Why Worry?), and continuing with Monday's Hot Water, Wednesday's shorts program, and Thursday's Grandma's Boy. As much as I love Harold Lloyd, I must admit I felt a bit disappointed at the prospect of seeing his films with musical tracks attached to the print, especially while having to look at an unused Wurlitzer organ in the middle of the Castro stage. I'm glad to learn I was prematurely pessimistic!

Thursday, August 18


Major catching up

Wow, I've really built up a backlog of Frisco screening news items!

1. My friend Jackie Moe hosts an award-winning film night most Mondays at the Edinburgh Castle Pub on Geary Street. Monday, August 22 is "Trailer Trash" night for fans of watching back-to-back movie trailers for European cult films and other obscure gems. Short films by Bay Area filmmakers Jose Rodriguez, Matt Wagner and David Enos will also be screened.

2. I couldn't find the schedule on their website, but the Italian Cultural Institute is presenting a short series tributing actress Alida Valli next week. Monday: Carol Reed's The Third Man with 9 AM: Chemistry Class; Tuesday: Hitchcock's The Paradine Case with the art-horror classic Eyes Without a Face; Thursday: Pontecorvo's The Wide Blue Road with Bertolucci's The Spider's Strategem; Friday: her great starring role in Luchino Visconti's Senso. All programs start at 6PM; be on time or else you'll disturb everybody with the noisy elevator, which the screening room was right next to the last time I went there. These are probably projected DVD presentations.

3. The 9th Annual Madcat Women's Film Festival has released its new program of films to play this September at the Yerba Buena Center, Artists' Television Access, and the El Rio pub, and the Pacific Film Archive in October.

4. Speaking of the PFA, I've been given a clue regarding their upcoming September calendar: included will be a spotlight on British silent cinema, including films by Anthony Asquith and Alfred Hitchcock.

5. The San Francisco Film Society has announced their annual "Film in the Fog" outdoor screening on October 1. For the fourth straight year it's a 1950's sci-fi film, in this case The Day The Earth Stood Still. Live music, a costume contest, and a classic cartoon are also promised. It all begins at 5PM on the Main Post, 99 Moraga Avenue.

6. I found a copy of the schedule for Act 1 & 2 in Berkeley and, as I expected, it's almost identical to the Lumiere/Opera Plaza schedule. Berkeleyites will get to see Elevator to the Gallows, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, and The Passenger for a week apiece, too. But they won't get Kamikaze Girls like we in Frisco will October 28- November 3; that slot on the calendar is given to the Asian omnibus horror film Three: Extremes, which with its stronger directorial pedigree (Takashi Miike, Fruit Chan and Park Chan-Wook rather than Nonzee Nimibutr, Kim Ji-Woon and Peter Chan) is much better than its predecessor Three. Presumably Three: Extremes will play in Frisco somewhere too around then.

The Act 1 & 2 will also host midnight screenings Fridays and Saturdays starting September 9-10 with Donnie Darko: the Director's Cut. It's mostly the usual 80s selections like The Karate Kid and The Neverending Story, but they're also throwing in The Wizard of Oz and Enter the Dragon.

7. A North Bay film series: contemporary Italian films every Saturday at the Marin Center Showcase Theatre.

That's enough for now. I'm off to go watch the Danger: Diabolik DVD.

Sunday, August 14


Asian Film Festival, so far

I went to three films at the 9th annual Asian Film Festival at the Four Star this weekend. The house was close to packed for a Friday evening screening of the award-winning One Night in Mongkok. It's the latest evidence against the common cry that the Hong Kong film industry is either dead or on its last legs. On the contrary, writer-director Derek Yee's film displays a direct, realistic approach that I've personally never seen taken this far in a Triad-themed film. Granted, I love the intensely over-the-top style so many Hong Kong genre films employ, but it's also refreshing to see a film able to maintain a more even tone and still provide all the requisite pleasures (action, humor, suspense, romance) of popular cinema, all while balancing a diverse and divided cast of characters. Yee highlights conflict between two groups in Hong Kong's most densely populated neighborhood, Mongkok. There are the newly arrived mainlanders who, lacking education and the right connections, turn to criminal activity; Daniel Wu plays a hit man and Cecilia Cheung the prostitute who helps navigate him through the cold underbelly of the city. On the other side is the Alex Fong-led police force charged with keeping Mongkok under control. After a slightly overstuffed opening reel or so, Yee perfectly paces his crosscuts between the two groups, showing Mongkok as an ethical no-man's land. The mainlanders try to leave their village ethics behind but are ultimately unable to, while the cops reveal that loyalty to the group trumps any external moral code. One particularly gripping sequence late in the film is like the dark side of a police procedural; we're privy to all the corrupt details of how one officer's ineptitude triggers an elaborate cover-up. Wu and Cheung have some excellent scenes of their own, and my favorite is a more contemplative moment when the pair are both surrounded and alienated by Christmas Eve revelers, as searchlights illuminate the polluted air so that we see bits of dust fall like snow. It plays again on Friday evening, when the festival moves over to the Presidio Theatre.

I enjoyed the playful Japanese film Kamikaze Girls, though I felt it lost a lot of steam toward the middle. It plays at the Four Star again on Tuesday. I was much more impressed, however, with the extremely dark and disturbing The Neighbor in 13. It's not that I consider myself a connoisseur of dark, violent movies, but I do find that many particularly talented directors like to work with such themes. The Neighbor in 13 is the most accomplished first film I've seen in quite a while. Santa Inoue comes from the world of music videos to direct this live-action version of a celebrated manga, but he does not import the standard music-video bag of tricks one might expect. Actually, Inoue has made a film all the more psychologically engrossing and emotionally devastating for its quiet stylistic restraint. It's a sinister fable of a sort, an exploration of the nature of evil that begins in a chemistry lab where a pack of bullies pour acid onto the face of a schoolmate. Years later, the victim (Oguri Shun) re-enters the circle of one of his tormentors when he moves into the same building and starts work at the same construction firm. He starts up a friendship with the bully's wife, but things spiral into a nightmare as an alter ego (Nakamura Shido) obsessed only with mayhem and revenge emerges. The end of the film has been criticized by some "Extreme" cinema fans as a cop-out, but I found it to be an altogether chilling finale to the intensity that never lets up once all the sympathetic characters begin to become additions to the film's body count. I may even slightly prefer the Neighbor in 13 to two recent films of the "doppelganger" subgenre made by more established directors: Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Doppelganger and Shinya Tsukamoto's Gemini (one of my favorites of last year's festival; too bad his latest, Vital, was cancelled from this year's program. Wednesday's scheduled 9:45 screening of that film will be replaced by the Korean horror film R-Point.)

Though I've heard good things about Pulse (playing Monday and Saturday), A Snake in June (digitally projected, Tuesday and Thursday) and the closing night film Mughal E-Azam, the only other festival film I've actually seen so far is the Tsui Hark / Ching Siu-Tung classic A Chinese Ghost Story, which came out the same year in Hong Kong that Evil Dead 2 did in the States, and essentially fills the same cinematic purpose as that hilariously grotesque special effects film, except that the Hong Kong film (starring the late Leslie Cheung) was one of its country's biggest hits that year (1987). It plays the Presidio on Friday, August 19 at 2:45 PM, one of the many $5 revival matinees at the festival this year.

Thursday, August 11


Shortends: Home Movie Day, etc.

1. This Saturday is Home Movie Day! If you're not convinced that home movies are relevant to film culture as a whole, perhaps you should watch Following Sean or Capturing the Friedmans. Better yet, track down Life in a Box or Bum's Paradise (pictured). Best of all, come to the events happening at the San Francisco Media Archive at 275 Capp Street in the heart of Frisco for 12 hours this Saturday, August 13. If you call ahead, you can get your own home movies inspected, screened, and even transferred to video from noon until 6PM. The evening events include screenings of particularly noteworthy home movies and a reception.

2. Landmark's new repertory calendar for screenings at the Opera Plaza and Lumiere Theatres has hit the streets. It looks like some nice selections; in each case these "calendared" films play for a week and often cannot be held over like other bookings, due to limited numbers of circulating prints. The schedule begins August 19-25 with Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows and its Miles Davis score; sometimes the 1958 thriller is called the first French New Wave film. I haven't seen it yet but I will. The other bookend is also a classic: Michelangelo Antonioni's 1975 The Passenger (Nov. 11-17), starring Jack Nicholson, another one I haven't seen.

In between are more contemporary films, like Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance which I can recommend as the most artistic of the "Extreme" (as in, extremely violent) films I've seen come out of South Korea recently. It plays August 26 through September 1, probably at the Lumiere. Others of potential interest include Crimen Ferpecto (Sep. 9-15) and the Lars Von Trier-scripted Dear Wendy (Sep. 23-29). Many of these films will most likely also play at the Act 1/2 in Berkeley. Elevator to the Gallows certainly will.

3. Barbara Bel Geddes died Monday at the age of 82. Her best film, Vertigo, is playing the Castro in 70mm four times today. I'll be there at one of the evening shows.

4. The Four Star and the Presidio host the Asian Film Festival starting tonight and lasting through the 21st of August. I expect to write more on that soon, but just thought I'd add one last tidbit: In the midst of all the pop and cult cinema from Asia, the Presidio has also booked the Hollywood film trilogy with perhaps the biggest current cult: all three Lord of the Rings films play back to back on August 18th. It's for charity.

Sunday, August 7


70mm Road Show

I did see The Road Warrior (a.k.a. Mad Max 2) last night after all. Unfortunately the print was somewhat faded and scratched, problems 70mm prints are certainly not immune to. I'm told that at least it looked better than Friday night's print of the orginal version of Apocalypse Now did. Actually, the fading felt almost appropriate, given the film's theme of civilization's decay and its dusty, desert setting. It was still nice to see in the theatre with a cheering audience. Ghostbusters screened today in a gorgeous, crisply detailed print that almost made me feel as if I was seeing the film for the first time (probably more like the 10th, though the first in several years.)

Print damage is always a concern for repertory theatres, and the Castro has actually cancelled this Thursday night's Hello, Dolly because of it. They've replaced the musical with screenings of the ultimate Frisco movie: Vertigo, and for good measure have added Hitchcock's masterpiece as a matinee tomorrow and Tuesday. In my opinion, if you've never seen Vertigo at the Castro you've never really seen it properly.

Apparantly the Castro was just picked #3 by Entertainment Weekly on a list of the best movie-friendly theatres in the country. Nice coup. Even better, though, is the fact that they're bringing a series of 3-D films including Andre De Toth's House of Wax for a week in October.

So what is the Road Warrior 24 years after it was made? Still an impressive action achievement. The helicopter shots still impress (perhaps more than ever) because we know all the motion we see is real and choreographed, not tweaked in post-production like science fiction films of today. It's got to be one of the first big, violent blow-em-ups to really invite the audience to laugh along with the bloody mayhem wreaked by its clownish villains, a trend upheld disturbingly consistently in subsequent films of the genre. And why doesn't anybody wear sunglasses? At least some of the baddies get goggles, but they're also stuck with the hot, black leather costumes which can't be fun in that climate. Try it at Burning Man, you'll see.

Saturday, August 6


Stanford Theatre reopens

Today the best place on Frisco Bay to watch a classic Hollywood double-bill, the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, reopens after three months of having its curtain closed. During this period, the lobby underwent restoration and other improvements briefly described here were made. They're opening with six days of Laura and the Philadelphia Story.

Their new calendar has something for just about every classic movie fan. Ever-rewatchable standards from the both the AFI 100 and Jonathan Rosenbaum's Alternative 100 lists include Some Like It Hot (Oct. 1-6), Citizen Kane and All About Eve (playing together Aug. 27-30) from the former and Bride of Frankenstein (Aug. 20-23, with Sunset Blvd.) and an Affair to Remember (Sep. 10-13) from the latter. There's a week of Greta Garbo films in September, followed by an Ernst Lubitsch/Maurice Chevalier/Jeannete MacDonald double bill, and then two of the greatest European-flavored Hollywood comedies: Lubitsch's To Be Or Not To Be and Mitchell Leisen's Midnight. And peppered throughout the schedule are relatively lesser-known pre-code films, silent movies (always with a live organist like Dennis James or Chris Elliot) including one of Harold Lloyd's most underrated films Girl Shy (Sep. 7), and even a couple days of a Satyajit Ray double bill, Mahanagar and Charulata (Sep. 8-9).

I don't know how often I'll be able to get down there myself, but its a well-run theatre that always makes sure its screenings end in time to make the last Caltrain back to Frisco. Since I'm curious to see how the lobby looks as soon as I can, I'm hoping to fit in a trip to see a pair of John Huston/Humphrey Bogart films I haven't gotten around to yet: the African Queen and Beat the Devil, playing from August 12-16.

Switching gears to the more recent "classic" films showing this week at the Castro, I can't help but wonder if the decision to play the 1981 post-apocalyptic milestone action film the Road Warrior on the very day 60 years after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima is a bizarre coincidence or else a slightly twisted joke, but I may just find myself there tonight as I haven't seen that film since the 80's. It's part of a 70mm film series that also includes Ken Russell's Tommy on Tuesday and Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands on Wednesday. Here's a great website on 70mm film, in case you're interested in learning more.

Wednesday, August 3


Land of Sound and Light

I remember during the pre-release media blitz for Ray, learning that Taylor Hackford had "shown" a cut of the film to Ray Charles, wondering if this was perhaps the first time that a Hollywood film had been made with a blind audience specifically in mind. Many blind people enjoy movies at home and even in theatres, and did so even before the days of descriptive audio tracks. But since it's counter-intuitive for a sighted person to think of an experience as visual as a motion picture as something they might be interested in, blind people have generally been the last minority group to be considered as a potential audience for films. One result of this is that blind characters in films have disproportionably appeared as vengeful villains, or in patronizing portrayals. This aspect of Hollywood history was extensively (though by no means exhaustively) chronicled by Martin F. Norden in his 1994 book The Cinema of Isolation, which also documents examples of Hollywood's portrayals of people with other disabilities such as deafness.

I'm reminded of all this because I just watched the new DVD of Werner Herzog's 1971 Land of Silence and Darkness, which follows the work of Fini Strauberger, a deaf and blind woman devoted to helping open paths of communication for others coping with blindness and deafness. She teaches an alphabet of hand strokes to people who have never really expressed themselves, or to people on the verge of losing what little vision and/or hearing they have left. It's a truly remarkable film that opens a wider window onto the idea that we humans are all dependant on one another, if not literally like the young man who does not know night from day and who communicates only by digging his fingernails into Strauberger's skin, then spiritually. It's all the more astonishing in that Herzog says he shot no more than 4 hours of footage for this 80-minute film. Most documentaries are edited down from hundreds of hours of raw footage. Clearly Herzog and Strauberger were on exactly the same page of understanding what was needed for the film to make it affect the hearing, sighted audiences they hoped would see it.

Perhaps it was not the best model to have in mind when watching a more recent (2000) documentary on the clash between deaf culture and hearing culture, Sound and Fury. It couldn't help but suffer by comparison. The approach is completely different, of course. Sound and Fury director Josh Aronson has located a family at the nexus of a very controversial topic for the deaf community: the cochlear implant, an electronic device meant to help deaf people approximate hearing. Two brothers, one deaf and one hearing, are at the point of deciding whether to implant the device in their young deaf children. Aronson seems to be trying to show us an issue from multiple sides, in an attempt at balance. But, and this is exacerbated by shortcomings in the Docurama DVD release (the main one being no subtitles or closed captioning, despite a little symbol on the back of the disc), he has made decisions that help nudge a hearing viewer into the pro-cochlear direction, and others that nudge a deaf viewer into the anti-cochlear direction.

Take, for example, the voiceover track attached as translation for all the deaf characters' sign language. I'm sure the intention of using a voiceover rather than subtitles was to make the film more accessible to a broader hearing audience, including people who are resistant to reading subtitles, but the effect is actually more distancing, at least for this viewer. The voice actors' performances often feel inauthentic, as if they were re-enactments like those found in so many made-for-television documentaries. And since the hearing characters get to speak with their own authentic voices, the empathy deck is stacked in their favor, at least for a hearing, non-signing viewer. Especially since their use of spoken English can obfuscate the fact that some of them (the grandmother, for example) are not very good at signing.

Conversely, hearing viewers are privy to information that a deaf viewer will miss. One of the most startling scenes for a hearing viewer is when 5-year-old Heather goes to visit Nancy, a 10-year-old girl with a cochlear implant. This is the first opportunity we have to hear someone with the implant who is still involved in deaf culture (like Heather, both of Nancy's parents are deaf) speak. She and her parents relate that her hearing grandparents say her speech is "perfect," but is clearly not. To be blunt, it was barely understandable to this viewer (though I'm sure if I spent time around Nancy I'd quickly get used to it). This is the first moment when I really started to question the motives of the medical professionals advocating for an implant for Heather. And it would be unnoticed by a deaf viewer. Not surprisingly, there was quite an outcry from some in the deaf community about the film's lack of balance when it was originally released.

The trouble with so many documentaries that try to present controversy is that it makes it hard for people to allow themselves to have a personal relationship with the film, especially if the issue it particularly close to them. The temptation to view the film through the lens of what others might think of it is simply too strong, and it inevitably colors our own reactions to what's being shown on screen. (Obviously, people who write about films are especially susceptible to this.) That's one reason why Herzog's documentaries are so incredible. They force the viewer to watch with his or her own eyes and be aware of his or her own reactions. Land of Silence and Darkness does not polarize viewers into differing camps. It simply presents and asks us to consider.

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