Friday, November 25


Miscellaneous-ness for the long weekend

1. Lincoln Spector, who has just made his Bayflicks site even more useful than it was before, points out that a Palo Alto theatre that I barely even knew existed, the Spangenberg, is about to stop showing films this weekend. The last film to play there will be that old warhorse Gone With the Wind, tonight and Saturday night at 7PM. Though this news story makes me wonder if perhaps film screenings in a high school auditorium was not the best fit, I can't help but wish I'd been able to check out the venue at least once before it closed. Not spending much time in the South Bay, I'm sure I'm not aware of many interesting corners of film culture there. Please let me know if you think there's a particular venue (on the Peninsula or anywhere else on Frisco Bay) that you think I should keep an eye on or add to my sidebar.

2. Speaking of points South, Spike & Mike's latest Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation has been running at the Cinema 9 in Santa Cruz for a few weeks already. Right now it's only playing midnight weekend shows, the last scheduled for December 10th. Then it disappears from the Northern California until February 4, when it takes up residence at Frisco's Victoria Theatre every Saturday (Thursday & Friday shows to be added starting February 23) until April 29. From the looks of the flyers to be found in bookstores, coffee shops and other sick and twisted locations around town, it's more of the usual fare, including new Happy Tree Friends episodes and a reprise of audience favorite No Neck Joe. To my surprise, they also promise an undisclosed Don Hertzfeldt title. I was under the impression that Hertzfeldt, whose shorts like Billy's Balloon were highlights of Spike and Mike's festivals in the late 1990's, had sworn off showing his films there after helping start up the Animation Show with Mike Judge. However, Spike includes a note that they've made an effort to pick films with higher production values "beyond just the normal gross-outs". I guess they realize that they just can't keep letting quality slip in an age when audiences so readily turn to the internet and DVDs for oddball cartoon viewing. The return of Hertzfeldt's oh-so-cinematic animation sensibility is probably a good sign.

3. On to a wholly different breed of short subject: I'm very excited to see that two programs of Bruce Conner films will be playing at SFMOMA in December. If I were forced to pick a favorite experimental filmmaker it might well be Conner, whose films are a hard-to-imagine combination of aesthetically rigorous and accessibly entertaining. I've seen nearly all the selections playing on Saturday afternoon, December 10; some are hilarious (Permian Strata), others serious (the White Rose), others adrenalized (Breakaway), and others somehow all at once (a Movie). The soundtracks feature everyone from Devo to Miles Davis to Ray Charles to Brian Eno. I can't think of a better selection of films to show someone whose conception of experimental film is that it's unforgivingly pretentious, to blow apart that myth. And I'm personally excited about the December 8 evening program because it includes most of the more rarely-screened films and versions of films from Conner's body of work (i.e. the ones I haven't seen yet!).

4. The San Francisco Public Library has announced the December selections for its large-screen video presentations at noon on Thursdays. The theme is "Down in New Orleans", and features films set there like Interview With a Vampire (December 1) and Louis Malle's Pretty Baby (December 8). Most exciting is Les Blank's appearance following the screening of his documentary Always For Pleasure on December 15.

Saturday, November 19


DeMille and de Mille

No, this is not another blog post about Anthony Hopkins. Last week I saw a pair of films directed by the DeMille brothers. One apiece, not working as a pair like the Coens or the Pangs or the Farrellys (Just who started this brother-directing-team trend anyway? I'm having trouble thinking of anyone earlier than the Brothers Quay). Cecil B. DeMille everyone knows for having directed the Ten Commandments (which I haven't seen) and the Greatest Show on Earth (which is inaptly named as it's probably the worst Best Picture Oscar winner ever) but he made some very watchable smaller-scale films earlier in his career, particularly in the silent era. I highly recommend Male and Female for some good, class-conscious comedy from 1919. Cecil's older brother William C. de Mille (they each spelled their last name differently for some reason) directed a long list of silents too but quit Hollywood after completing only a few talkies. The final film he directed on his own was the 1932 drama Two Kinds of Women, starring Miriam Hopkins as Emma Krull, the daughter of a "hick Senator" (Irving Pichel) from South Dakota who falls in love with a New York playboy (Phillips Holmes).

Two Kinds of Women for the most part plays like a typical romantic melodrama of the time. In part because the Holmes character is underdeveloped, Emma seems very naive (to her disapproving father and to the audience) to put faith in her new beau's renuciations of his former lifestyle. We're set up to see the usual conflict between "jazz age" values and traditional ones, but Emma sees no such conflict, moving into the world of speakeasies and police raids without abandoning her wholesome, Midwestern outlook. Though the script feels like nothing special, there are a couple of shocking directorial choices, especially in the context of a studio-themed series in which a certain house style is maintained. Besides the famed "Paramount Glow" there was also, for example, an avoidance of any camera movement drawing attention to itself. De Mille shatters this convention several times, most startlingly with a hand-held shot taken from the point of view of a drunken gold digger. There were audible gasps in the audience; one might even have been mine.

The accompanying co-feature was Cecil B. DeMille's This Day and Age. Absent any real lasting stars in the cast, it has become one of DeMille's most obscure and rarely-seen films. The most famous face belongs to Charles Bickford (also found in another Balboa series film, the outrageous White Woman), who plays a racketeer with ironclad connections in all the centers of power throughout the city except for the student body council at the local high school. When he murders Herman, an independently-minded tailor popular with a group of students, they determine to bring him to justice even if the community of adults is paralyzed by his power.

When a Cecil B. DeMille film is working, it unrelentingly sweeps me into the passions and thrills of the story, like a speech by a gifted demagogue. Thus did This Day and Age, milking the maximum narrative mileage out of each on-screen injustice against the youth and society, helped along by a healthy dose of salacious appeal in the form of a subplot in which a schoolgirl (Judith Allen) is used as sexual bait to distract the racketeer's bodyguard. It's only once DeMille spends several minutes more than absolutely necessary on elaborate, extra-packed shots of a victory parade from the scene of Bickford's inquisition (over a pit of rats!) and forced confession, to the courthouse where a previously unsentimental judge proclaims the mob of junior vigilantes "heroes", that I really had time to pause and reflect on what I'd been seeing. I remembered DeMille's conservative political bent, and suddenly noticed how the film acted as a mirror of fascist youth movements in Europe in the early 1930s in its expression of a desire for a new generation to assume the mantle of leadership from adults immobilized in the face of corruption.

I wouldn't necessarily go as far as some have in calling the film a fascist one, in part because it's missing a crucial implication we expect from the word today, that of racial purity. The extremely sympathetic character Herman is a Jewish immigrant who prepares ethnic food for the students, knowing that "the stomach is the last place to get patriotic." Robert Birchard, in his data-laden but context-light book Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood, points to this and to the existence of a "well-dressed and well-spoken black classmate" whose role in the plot against the racketeer requires him
to masquerade as a stereotypical shoeshine boy. This acknowledgement of black role-playing as a mode of social survival within the predominant white society is virtually unique in pre-1960s American film. (page 262)
Birchard is correct in pointing this out, but his attempt to completely exonerate the film from fascist implications doesn't quite convince. In the prior paragraph, he calls the film an "allegory (represented by youth versus adults) about the necessity for society to renew and maintain the will to defend itself against totalitarian forces (the gangsters)." But if the gangsters are the totalitarian force in the film, what do we call the vigilante methods of intimidation, interrogation and torture so admired by the judge at the end of the film? Clearly the film, like so many Hollywood products, leaves enough room to be read both ways. The fact that the youths use gangster-like tactics on the gangster makes it very similar to a film released by Warner only two months earlier, The Mayor of Hell. Except in that film the youth rebellion is led by James Cagney's gangster character, while This Day and Age cloaks the rebellion's gangster tendencies by casting his mob exclusively with youthfully innocent actors and extras.

Tonight I'm going back to the Balboa to see two more Cecil B. DeMille films, both the type of period epics he is most remembered for: the Sign of the Cross and Cleopatra. I've never seen either before, and I'm very excited to see how they play with such a fascinating (if somewhat repellent) film as This Day and Age fresh in my mind. Will I be swept up by the narrative again, only to find myself cheering for a questionable cause?

Tuesday, November 15


Naruse, what?

The first thing almost everybody does when writing on Japanese director Mikio Naruse is talk about how difficult it has been for years to see his films. It may be true, but when repeated over and over again (and here I am doing nothing to counter the tradition) it begins to sound like some sort of apology. One starts to wonder if Naruse's films are considered great simply because they are rare. Surely they're not rare simply because they're great, right?

Still, ever since hearing about the reported master for the first time four or five years ago, I have dutifully treaded out to every single screening (in reasonable striking distance) of a Naruse film I've been aware of. Which means that, until this past Sunday, I'd seen a grand total of one of his films in a cinema, the charming short Flunky, Work Hard!, which prefigures by one year Ozu's I Was Born, But... in its depiction of a son's chagrin at realizing his father's lowly position in the wider society. I also have watched two of the three out-of-print videotapes of his films available at the better rental stores in town (I still haven't gotten around to the most highly-lauded of the three, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs).

Whatever dam was holding them back, the centennial of Naruse's birth is opening the gates to allow prints of his films to flow into the view of Frisco cinephiles, now at a trickle and soon a healthy stream. The stream will take the form of a touring Naruse retrospective coming to the Pacific Film Archive January 12 through February 18, 2006. While we wait, the Taisho Chic on Screen series there includes three early Naruse features fitting with the series theme of examining images of the "modern girl" in pre-war Japan. A pair of films from 1935, Three Sisters With Maiden Hearts and Wife! Be Like a Rose! (the latter among the first Japanese films ever to land a commercial release in the United States), play November 26th. And I went there to see his first feature film Apart From You on Sunday evening.

Though it is saddled with one of the blandest English-language titles I've encountered (the occasional alternate title After Our Separation is only marginally better) Apart From You really is quite an impressive film, the first I've seen to really make me start to agree that Naruse might worthy of his critical reputation as the most underrated Japanese master. The story shifts focus between characters so that it's hard to think of one as the protagonist, though Sumiko Mizokubo's luminous beauty and key role in the drama makes her the leading candidate. She plays a Terukiku, a geisha who falls in love with Yoshio (Akio Isono), the young, rebellious son of Kikue (Mitsuko Yoshikawa), her mentor at the geisha house. Observing how Yoshio feels humiliated by his mother's profession, she brings him to her seaside hometown to meet the family that sold her into service, hoping the experience will lend him more understanding of his mother's fate. However, the trip home impresses on her the impending likelihood of her sister being obliged to follow in her footsteps. Thus, Terukiku becomes determined to work all the harder to bear the family burden and shield her sister's baby son from the kind of shame Yoshio feels, even if it means separating from him. This may read like unremarkable plotting typical of Japanese dramas of the time, but Naruse commands a wide variety of camera movements (including some rapidly tracking close-ups at particularly tense moments) and lighting configurations to squeeze the maximum emotional control over each instant.

Apart From You was preceded by a fragment of Rising Sun, a film commissioned by an Osaka newspaper for its 50th year in print and co-directed by Seiichi Ina and Kenji Mizoguchi. Perhaps warming up with a promotional fragment caused me to notice in the feature quite a few particularly prominent shots of consumer products used by the geisha and their clients, from a cigarette pack to a Meiji chocolate bar. Not reading Japanese, it's hard for me to guess whether these might have been paid product placements, though some of the products had perfectly legible English words or recognizable logos (in a shot of a record player it was easy to read the Victor company's name on the label, and even make out the picture of Nipper). Whether or not these shots were originally an expression of the shrewd commercial sense of Shochiku studio's suits, they seem to function for Naruse as a kind of commentary on the deceivingly luxurious lifestyle geishas live in. And anyway, after 70+ years, product placements seem more quaint than crass. I certainly didn't feel the urge to go out and buy a Union Beer after seeing a bottle of it spilled at the end of a poignant scene.

Tuesday, November 8


Shortends Again

I've been leaving lots of shortends in the can lately, but here's a few to run through the camera:

1. I strongly suspect that whoever selects the films to play the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum's Edison Theatre (a place I'm ashamed to say I've never been to) looked at the schedule of pre-code films playing this month at the Balboa before picking the films for November. Early silent versions of two of the Balboa's pre-codes are scheduled for the Fremont venue's Saturday evening screenings. This coming Saturday it's the John Barrymore version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, just in time to compare it against the Frederic March version at the Balboa November 15th. On November 26th it's Ernst Lubitsch's the Marriage Circle, which the director later reconceptualized as One Hour With You (which, in turn, I just saw for the first time earlier this evening.) I'm led to understand that all films at the Edison Theatre are shown in 16mm prints with live piano accompaniment, and are preceded by short films. On November 19th all the films will be shorts, including some real greats like Charlie Chaplin's Easy Street and Buster Keaton's One Week.

2. With Antonioni's The Passenger re-released this Friday, it's time to look ahead to a new batch of calendared films set to appear at Landmark Theatres: the Opera Plaza, Lumiere (and, presumably, Act 1 & 2) in the next few months. Of thirteen films, each expected to play a week (though sometimes they get extended), I've seen two. Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse (opening Dec. 16) absolutely justifies its reputation at the artistic zenith of the recent explosion in creepy Japanese horror films. Ralph Arlyck's Following Sean (opening Jan. 13) is a worthy documentary in the self-analytical tradition of filmmakers like Chris Marker and Caveh Zahedi, if not as deeply revelatory as the best films in the subgenre. Other documentaries on the schedule include Wal-Mart: the High Cost of Low Price (which gets an early, pre-Buy Nothing Day release Wednesday Nov. 23 and is promised for nine days instead of the usual seven), Music From the Inside Out (opening Dec. 30), and Waging a Living (opening Jan. 6). The new calendar closes with the February 10 release of Manderlay, Lars Von Trier's eagerly-dreaded follow-up to Dogville.

3. Jesse Ficks is back with his Midnites For Maniacs. His new venue: the Castro. He officiated over the midnight screenings of Friday the 13th Part 3-D (which I saw) and Flesh For Frankenstein (which I missed) during their 3-D series last month. Now he's bringing the criminally under-appreciated Lost Highway for a Saturday midnight show during the upcoming David Lynch film festival December 9-11. Great work, Jesse! Only a Friday midnight screening of Eraserhead and early matinees of the Straight Story could make this weekend any more complete for Lynch fans.

4. Still lots of film festivals coming to town, one after another. Next up: the 3rd I South Asian Film Festival (Nov. 11-13) and New Italian Cinema (Nov. 13-20).

5. The Roxie is getting the same program of Jay Rosenblatt short films that the Rafael will be showing Nov. 18-24, only a week earlier, starting this Friday. I've only seen Prayer, which was enough to make me want to catch up with the rest.

Thursday, November 3


My first blog list

In honor of the Paramount pre-code series that begins at the Balboa tonight and runs through November 24th, here are my current ten favorite Paramount feature films from the period, each accompanied by a favorite quote:

1. Love Me Tonight (Nov. 11)
Jeanette MacDonald: "Do you ever think of anything but men?"
Myrna Loy: "Yes, schoolboys."
2. Shanghai Express (Nov. 12)
Anna May Wong: "I confess I don't quite know the standard of respectability that you demand in your boarding house, Mrs. Haggerty."
3. Trouble in Paradise (Nov. 20)
Kay Francis: "Marriage is a beautiful mistake which two people make together."
4. Design For Living (Nov. 11)
Edward Everett Horton: "Immorality may be fun, but it isn't fun enough to take the place of one hundred percent virtue and three square meals a day."
5. Morocco (Nov. 23)
Marlene Dietrich: "An apple a day keeps the doctor away, while his pretty young wife has the time of her life."
6. the Smiling Lieutenant (Nov. 20)
Miriam Hopkins: "I got all my knowledge out of the Royal Encyclopedia. A special edition arranged for Flausenthurm, with all the interesting things left out."
7. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (Nov. 15)
Holmes Herbert: "Perhaps you're forgetting, you're engaged to Muriel."
Frederic March: "Forgotten it? Can a man dying of thirst forget water?"
8. the Scarlet Empress (Nov. 5)
John Lodge: "You have old-fashioned ideas. This is the 18th century!"
9. Horse Feathers (Nov. 13)
Groucho Marx: "Whatever it is, I'm against it."
10. the Love Parade (not scheduled to play)
Maurice Chevalier: "I've blushed to admit, I've still plenty of it,
But nobody's using it now!"

I hope to revisit a number of these, as well as some others that didn't quite make the list, and see as many still-unseen films as I can over the next few weeks, so I expect there will be some changes. My lists are never set in stone. For good measure, here are five of my favorite Betty Boop cartoons; I imagine most or all of them will be among the cartoons peppered in with the features for this series.

1. Bimbo's Initiation
2. Snow-White
3. Betty Boop's Ups and Downs
4. Ha Ha Ha!
5. The Old Man of the Mountain

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