Saturday, September 24


Summer's gone, bring on the noir!

The other day I looked out the window at 7:30 PM or so in the evening, and I couldn't help but notice that it was already getting dark. Summer's over. The end of Daylight Saving Time is just around the corner. It's time to get ready for noir season in Frisco. Get our trenchcoats out of the closets, brush the dust off our fedoras, and practice looking cool in the fog. Living in the Richmond district, I get to practice that pretty much all summer, but the rest of the city will soon have its chance to catch up.

Shorter days and longer nights are perfect for evening double-bills free of any pangs of guilt for missing out on maximum Vitamin D production. And the Film Noir Foundation has already started announcing the films they'll be bringing to the upcoming 4th Annual Noir City Film Festival. It'll be 1946 all over again in my neighborhood, where the Balboa Theatre will host a week of vintage pairings like The Big Sleep with The Blue Dahlia and The Dark Mirror with Crack Up. And for those who think a trip to the foggy West End of town is inconvenient, a separate program will run at the Palace of Fine Arts, where the lobby will be transformed into a "Noir City nightclub" complete with live jazz. I can picture it already. The titles picked so far include everything from unusual gems like Hollow Triumph to bona fide classics like Strangers on a Train (perhaps Hitchcock's most noir-ish film, it will play alongside a personal appearance from Farley Granger, as will Nick Ray's They Live By Night, which I've yet to see). The festival starts next January 13 (Balboa screenings starting January 18), and lasts through the 24th.

If 2006 seems far too long to wait, the Danger and Despair Knitting Circle has apparently resolved the issues that halted its weekly Thursday night 16mm screenings last July, and has already promised a Fall filled with Robert Ryan titles and spy films. Only one date announced as yet: the noir precursor Freaks plays just in time for Halloween on October 27th. Check their website for details on how to get an invitation to their free screenings.

And if you can't wait even that long for a noir fix, you might try checking out Jean-Luc Godard's noir-influenced Band of Outsiders (perhaps his most accessible film, too) at the Castro which plays this coming Monday-Thursday with Masculin, Feminin. Or better yet go over to the Parkway on October 6th for Jim McBride's New Orleans-set neo-noir The Big Easy, screening as a Hurricane Katrina Victims Benefit.

Sunday, September 18


Pulling out all the stops at the Castro

It's coming up on a year since the owners of the Castro Theatre fired longtime programmer Anita Monga. What had been only a hushed rumor became the talk of the Frisco film community beginning on October 11 with the distribution of this message from (now former) Castro employee Christian Bruno. Speculation of a move toward "family friendly" programming and questions about the fit between the sensibilities of the Nasser family (the family that built the Castro in 1922 and resumed operation of it in 2001 after decades of leasing it) and the neighborhood rose up among a protest and calls for a boycott. It seemed that the Frisco film community was united in agreement that Monga's departure from the Castro represented a great loss to the city.

People outside or on the fringes of the Frisco film scene (That's where I think of myself, as besides my PFA membership, I'm unaffiliated with any local film groups) had to rely on reports like these to try and make sense of the situation. And by evaluating the selection of films programmed in Monga's absence. The first couple of calendars put together by the Los Angeles-based Richard Blacklock were, leaving aside film festivals, pretty underwhelming. The summer program selections improved, and the hiring of a locally-based events producer named Bill Longen seems like a good thing. At least there will be a face to the Castro's programming staff, someone who can interact with audiences in person and start to create a new knowledge base of what might work in a post-Anita landscape.

Note that it's only the Castro Theatre itself that has had a post-Anita landscape since her firing. She's been busy at the Balboa, where she helped Eddie Muller move the Noir City Film Festival and has continued to contribute including help with an upcoming Paramount pre-code series, at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre (which will join the Balboa as a Noir City venue in 2006) being honored by the SF Film Society, at the Mill Valley Film Festival guest curating the shorts programs, and at the Film Arts Foundation, whose annual film festival will break tradition and not hold screenings at the Castro this fall. There were some who hoped she might be chosen to fill positions recently opened at the SF International Film Festival or the Pacific Film Archive, but it it was not to be. I have high hopes for the fit between the Bay Area and Graham Leggat and Susan Oxtoby, respectively.

Going to the Castro for a movie hasn't felt quite the same as it used to. Granted in the past year I haven't gotten up the motivation to go as often as I had before, even with the enticement of a new print of a Bigger Than Life or a Baby Face. When I have gone the sense of excitement of being in a beautiful movie palace has been muted. Instead of looking for familiar faces in the crowd, I sometimes wonder if I should be putting my hoodie up to try to avoid recognition. There have been exceptions; the Silent Film Festival felt just like old times, and the young crowd at the 70mm screening of Ghostbusters seemed genuinely excited, especially when the organist played the familiar bars of Elmer Bernstein's score before the curtain rose.

Perhaps I'm just being a sour curmudgeon. Though I've talked to many hardcore cinephiles who now avoid going to the Castro or don't go as often, on the whole Frisco still loves that movie palace. A few months ago it was once again voted "Best Movie Theatre" by Bay Guardian readers, and in August it made an Entertainment Weekly list of "10 Theatres Doing it Right" (though the Monga controversy, mentioned in the magazine, is tackily omitted without an ellipsis mark on the Castro website.) Certainly the rumors of "family friendly" programming haven't been borne out.

All of this is a long-winded preamble to an announcement that the fall Castro calendar is now online. And it looks very good. Often mouth-wateringly so, as in the October 3-9 series of 3-D films including Dial M For Murder, the Columbia Before the Code series October 12-20, a Terence Malick double bill on November 7, and a David Lynch mini-retro December 9-11. The Arab Film Festival (Sep. 23-25), the Latino Film Festival (Nov. 4-6, plus extra events), and the 3rd i Film Festival (Nov. 12) all make a return, the latter bringing a matinee screening of Ritwak Ghatak's The Cloud-Capped Star (pictured). Joining them will be the first-ever fall program from the Silent Film Festival, the West Coast premiere of the rediscovered Valentino film Beyond the Rocks. And the list goes on: Once Upon a Time in the West (Nov. 14-15). A classic Godard double bill (Sep. 26-29). Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake Is Missing paired with Roman Polanski's The Tenant (Nov. 1). As if to tribute the recently-departed Robert Wise, a week-before-Halloween horror series concludes with The Haunting (on a double-bill with Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon), and the Sing-a-Long Sound of Music finally makes a return appearance (Nov. 26-29).

Presuming that the prints of these films are of good quality (Monga's experience and connections seemed to help avoid print-quality horror stories like those reported here and here), a trove of cinematic riches and rarities are about to be unleashed on the Castro screen. If this new calendar is indicative of future programming choices at the venue, I have to say I'm impressed. Let's hope it's not simply a last-ditch attempt to get some good press on the one-year-anniversary of the programming switch. It's important to keep in mind what's still missing from the selections. Documentaries are almost exclusively booked by the film festivals now; I count one non-fest booking on the new calendar. Classic foreign films have been greatly de-emphasized. For example, as New York City cinephiles are immersing themselves in an incredible onslaught of Japanese films this fall, I wonder how many of them will reach Frisco theatres any time soon (though the PFA will bring a series of Japanese films in November and December); Blacklock has programmed one Kurosawa film and an Ultraman festival since taking over. And it's less tangible, but there seems to be less of a political edge to the programming now; it's hard to imagine two weeks of something like The Battle of Algiers or The Corporation playing anymore.

Is that the ultimate crux of it? Is that the reason for Monga's firing in the first place, the reason for the protests and bitterness that resulted? Two visions for a classic movie palace, one imagining it as a center for an engaged community in a highly political city, the other imagining it as a shrine to escapist Hollywood in the spirit of the hedonistic era in which it was built? I don't know, but I for one don't think of Hollywood as strictly escapist, and the act of watching a Frank Borzage film will never feel apolitical. I'll see you at Man's Castle on October 14th. I'll be the guy with his hoodie up.

Wednesday, September 14


Rumor Mill

A little bird told me the names of the directors with films in the 2005 Mill Valley Film Festival, happening October 6-16.

This information and lots more will probably be available on the festival website by the time you read this blog entry. But its always fun to feel like you've got a scoop, so I might as well run with it.

First, the filmmaker's name. Then, the name of the film I'm guessing the festival is bringing:

Stephen Frears: Mrs. Henderson Presents
Zola Maseko: Drum
Niki Caro: North Country
Noah Baumbach: The Squid and the Whale
Ryuchi Hiroki: L'Amant
Rob Nilsson: Need
Silvije Petranovic: the Society of Jesus
Gidi Dar: Ushpizin
Lisa Gay Hamilton: Beah: a Black Woman Speaks
Ryu Jang-Ha: Springtime
David Siegel and Scott MacGehee: Bee Season
Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro: Delicatessen, perhaps?
Dave Fleischer: anyone's guess.
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger: who knows? Can we hope for a multi-film retrospective?

There's lots more, but I'm tired of typing.

One last unrelated thing: I bet you didn't know that the uniquely gorgeous and groundbreaking 1974 documentary-esque biopic Edvard Munch, by Peter Watkins, is playing at the Oaks Theatre on Solano Avenue in North Berkeley for two more nights. Starting Friday it's replaced with Jia Zhang-Ke's The World, which has been my most-anticipated new film since I missed its screenings at the SFIFF this spring. Though I'm more likely to see it at my friendly neighborhood Balboa where it's also opening.

Monday, September 12


Lakes and Skies

Three weeks ago I went to the Pacific Film Archive to view my first James Benning film, 13 Lakes. Though I'd heard of Benning and some of his films (particularly his California Trilogy) before, I only had a vague idea of what they might be like until two directors (Amir Muhammed and Jenni Olson) mentioned him as an influence on their films (Tokyo Magic Hour and The Joy of Life, respectively) at the San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this year. I was intrigued, as the most Benning-inspired segment was my favorite part of Amir's film, and Olson's film was my favorite of the entire festival.

And so I found myself sitting before the PFA's screen, watching thirteen carefully-composed, ten-minute-long shots of American lakes. And so I experienced a different way of watching a film than I ever had before. Changes in the images were usually slow and subtle, with very little of what is normally evoked by the term "screen movement". The first was Jackson Lake in Wyoming, and it was a study of the changing light and color at dawn, with Mount Moran and its reflection in the water as the canvas. After ten minutes and a fade to black, each shot gave way to a new lake with a new soundtrack, a new reflection of light on its surface, a new cloud cover, a new rhythm of rippling in the water. Though I've spent quite a bit of time in the outdoors, and even spent summers trying to teach teenagers about observing nature, I'm not sure I've ever really looked at something for even ten uninterrupted minutes before. Benning's film is a solicitation for viewers to look at his film as they might at a painting, or would if the oil in a painting could shimmer, swell, float, foam, flutter, or wave. It also asks us to look more closely at the natural world.

I won't pretend that I caught on right away. I nodded off for a bit in the middle of the second shot at Moosehead Lake, so its composition didn't burn into my brain like the other twelve did. I grew quite restless during the Salton Sea segment, even though I found it humorous to hear the constant soundtrack of jetskiers' engines, and then to see the vehicles unwittingly play peekaboo with Benning's camera. It wasn't until the calming Lake Superior shot that I started to realize the usefulness of taking the whole image in at once rather than darting my eyes around the screen looking for what little movement there was to be had. Still, this method worked better for some shots than for others. In fact, each lake seemed to suggest a slightly different way of looking and listening. At the speed at which wind blew snow onto the surface of Lake Iliamna it seemed almost unlikely that Benning and his camera weren't blown forward into the icy Alaskan water too. By contrast, the water in Crater Lake was tranquil enough to cast a perfect reflection of the rim of the dormant volcano in which it lies, which naturally encouraged attention to focus on changes in the soundtrack. The final shot left me exhilarated; the rippling waves of Oneida Lake moved toward the camera at just the right angle and speed to create the illusion of a weightless tracking shot. If I made sure to keep my eyes focused on the edges of the frame it seemed as if I were floating out over the lake, though never getting any closer to the opposite bank.

The next day I read this Senses of Cinema article on 13 Lakes. Its author, Michael J. Anderson, insightfully knits connections between Benning's film and the concept of the frame André Bazin explored when writing on Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game. The essay culminates in a discussion of the Lake Iliamna shot, leading to a fascinating conception of the cinema screen as an imagined portal to the world on the other side of Benning's camera. And then for the bizarre postscript: Anderson tries to define 13 Lakes as a "defiantly non-environmentalist" film, morphing an intelligent piece of film criticism into a conservative rant against what he sees as an "environmental orthodoxy."

I'm all for film and art that can bear a wide diversity of interpretations. I do not require films to express particular political points of view I ascribe to; in fact I find the majority of films that do so to be rather tiresome because of it. And some of my favorite films can be found on this list, most notably Fort Apache, Ruggles of Red Gap and I Know Where I'm Going! (though I think Ian Christie's Criterion DVD commentary makes a strong case for the latter film as exemplary of Britons' swing toward Labour at the end of World War II). Still, I absolutely consider myself an environmentalist, and do not want to let Mr. Anderson's conclusions stand unchallenged. Especially not at this moment in time, when one of the lakes captured in Benning's film, Lake Ponchartrain, has become so absolutely relevant.

I am open to a true interpretation of 13 Lakes as a non-environmentalist film. However, the evidence Anderson supplies in his argument does not come from the film itself, but from his evaluation of comments Benning made in response to audience members' questions after a screening: one of the most telling moments of the post-film wrap-up, one viewer began her question by stating that she knows that the filmmaker is an environmentalist. To this, Benning quickly rejoined, glibly, that he is in fact not an environmentalist, as should be evident by the ten thousand miles he drove in the making of the film. While he later conceded that one of the points of the film is the condition of the lakes at the moment of filming, he held that he is an outsider to the movement. The point being made by Benning was not that he is unconcerned with nature, but rather that he does not agree with all of environmentalism's tenets.

More to the point, Benning does not share certain presuppositions of the environmentalist movement. Tellingly, Benning in a further elaboration of his divergence from this school of thought averred that the lakes themselves would be around long after the rest of us have gone. The implication of this observation, certainly, distinguishes the director from environmentalist orthodoxy: to Benning, the environment is resilient, whereas it is its frailty that instructs environmentalist orthodoxy.
Anderson wants readers to accept a straw man construction of an emotionally-based environmental movement ignorant of scientific fact. Such a construction can be seductive because everyone has encountered environmentalists who seem wholly unconcerned with facts, or those with a naive conception of the natural world they're trying to protect.

But Anderson tries to tar the whole of environmentalism with the same brush, especially when he quotes a Michael Crichton speech calling for an environmental movement "based in objective and verifiable science" without offering substantial evidence that it isn't already. Most environmentalists' conviction comes not out of an emotional or "religious" wellspring, but as a rational response to scientific facts. Facts that indicate a conflict between the current patterns of production and consumption in industrial and post-industrial societies and the health and overall quality of life for human beings, whether on a local or global scale.

Taking a closer look at Anderson's piece, there are indications in the body of his analysis that foreshadow his conclusions in the postscript, making it seem a little less like a non-sequitur. His very first paragraph minimizes "human incursion" in the film, ignoring the fact that several of the filmed lakes have been greatly shaped by human intervention. For example, the Salton Sea took its current form early in the last century with the flooding of a man-made canal, and would dry up if not for the irrigation of the Coachella and Imperial valleys. Lake Powell was just a stretch of the Colorado River until the completion of Glen Canyon Dam in 1963. And the visible clumps of algae floating on the edge of Lake Okeechobee are surely caused by agricultural nutrient runoff. Later Anderson states that the movement in 13 Lakes is created by changes "inherent in nature". The film provides a preponderance of evidence against this notion, most clearly in the Lake Pontchartrain shot in which on-screen movement is provided by an endless stream of automobiles driving across the Causeway that connects New Orleans to the bedroom communities on the lake's North Shore. This image evoked the relationship between the oil industry and the ecological condition of the lake when I saw it three weeks ago; post-Katrina it becomes all the more charged with significance.

A week after the 13 Lakes screening, I went back to the PFA to watch its companion piece Ten Skies and to hear Benning talk about his work in person. Perhaps because 13 Lakes had warmed me up for it, I found Ten Skies to be an even more beautiful and revelatory work. Because its ten shots were not literally grounded by a horizon line as in 13 Lakes, watching them was an experience even more alien to someone weaned on "traditional" forms of cinema. The painterly qualities of the light, color and form were all the more apparent, as were the constant changes in all three. And because the essence of the film was nothing else but the ephemeral vapor of clouds and smoke, completely isolated in the frame from any recognizable topography, watching the film seemed even more than for 13 Lakes an exercise in the act of seeing images outside the context of any text. A subject without matter, if you will.

Yet once again I could not view the film as completely divorced from environmentalist concerns. The second shot in Ten Skies is of smoke rising out of a fire. As I watched the battle between the dark smoke and the remaining patches of light blue for control of the frame, questions emerged. Was this a forest fire or a grass fire? How was it started? Was it a controlled burn or a wildfire? Does the helicopter on the soundtrack help answer these questions? The seventh shot showed white steam billowing out of what must have been some kind of industrial plant, and similar questions were raised. And the ninth shot contained little, dark streaks that I assumed were patches of smog or some other breed of pollution. Surely the filmmaker did not include such shots in his film and expect the viewer to ignore the consequences of human impact on the natural environment?

A question-and-answer session following the film provided me with an opportunity to solicit an opinion on this matter from Benning himself. Midway through the session, nervously gripping the microphone in my hand, I explained that I'd seen 13 Lakes the previous week and subsequently read an article claiming that he wasn't an environmentalist. I asked him to clarify whether he was an environmentalist, an anti-environmentalist, or neither, and to comment about how his films reflect his views on environmentalism. He began his answer by repeating the line reported by Anderson, that his thousands of miles of driving to these lakes surely conflicted with environmentalism. But he went on to clarify further that in fact he was quite concerned with the state of the environment; that he was an environmentalist after all, but simply not a practicing one. Which, he admitted, made him in fact a hypocrite, something he was not proud of.

I am not suggesting that this exchange, recorded with uncertain accuracy in my notebook and reproduced in the above paragraph, represents the last word on these two films and their relationship with environmentalism. I do hope those of you intrigued enough to have read this far will seek out Benning's films and see how your own reaction compares. (I know they've been programmed for the upcoming Vancouver International Film Festival, but am not aware of more Bay Area screenings scheduled) And if you disagree with my take on these films, or any others I've written about on this blog or in my occasional pieces elsewhere, let me know, either by e-mail or in the comments below.

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