Saturday, June 30


Three Thick Paragraphs

My transit-centric post last week noted that the Stanford Theatre had not yet announced its summer program. Well now it has, starting July 10th with a reprise of the Fred Astaire film festival that launched the theatre on its current path of screening classic Hollywood (and occasionally British, or otherwise non-Hollywood) films to large, appreciative audiences 20 years ago. With 63 films on the schedule including six titles from the new AFI 100, and at least a few shouldabeens as well, there's something to catch any movie lover's eye but I'll point out a few examples I'd particularly fancy travelling down for: a Bogie from each of the aforementioned lists on August 11-14 (Casablanca and In a Lonely Place). A British pair August 30-31 (Sabotage and Green For Danger). An Anthony Mann double-bill proving the Stanford to be one of the few venues on Frisco bay to still screen truly great Hollywood Westerns, on September 19-21 (Man of the West and the Man From Laramie). And silent comedies on biweekly Wednesday evenings starting August 1 with, at least tentatively, the Whirl of Life starring Vernon and Irene Castle, and concluding September 12th with a pair of Buster Keaton films accompanied by Christian Elliott on the Wurlitzer organ: the Navigator and Steamboat Bill, Jr. The latter Keaton also plays in San Rafael July 16th with an accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, fresh from their Silent Film Festival performances with Beggars of Life and Miss Lulu Bett the previous weekend.

But please don't get the impression that one must leave Frisco's city limits to find worthwhile alternatives to the summer's would-be blockbusters. I've mentioned a number of them in previous posts, but several Frisco theatres have recently updated their upcoming film schedules. The Red Vic has its lineup set through the end of July, including short runs of Antonio Gaudi July 8-10 and Grindhouse July 27-29. The Four Star hosts a roadshow of Houston's Slant Film Festival July 21, two days after launching a re-scheduled Thursday evening series of Asian films of various genres from kung fu (Shaolin Temple, Jet Li's first, and Fearless, his last film in the genre, play together August 9th) to J-horror (Ghost Train and Illusion of Blood September 13th). And the Roxie, currently the only place left in town to see Brand Upon the Brain!, will be the home of the Frozen Film Festival July 12-15, with at least one animated masterpiece, Don Hertzfeldt's Everything Will Be OK, on the slate July 13th at 10:25 PM (leaving plenty of time to head over from the Castro screening of the Student Prince in Old Heidelberg that evening.)

But the Frisco venue that may outdo all others with its summer schedule is Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. There are the usual co-presentations with other local film organizations, from the July 11th screening of Ian Gabriel's Forgiveness in conjunction with California Newsreel, the Black Film Festival and the Museum of the African Diaspora, to a July 25th examination of rarities and oddities from Jonathan Marlow's Cabinet of Curiosities presented with the assistance of Greencine and Cabinetic. But the season highlight will surely be a dozen films, mostly from the seventies and eighties, shown in 35mm prints under the series title "Screw Netflix! Movies Not Available on DVD." It starts with John Cassavetes' Love Streams July 12th, ends with the director's cut of Robert Aldrich's Twilight's Last Gleaming August 18th. In between every Thursday and Sunday bring a different unburied treasure, including Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It July 28, Jack Nicholson's Drive, He Said August 9, and Peter Watkins' Privilege August 11. Each film is screened just once, except for the 1982 concert film Urgh! A Music War, with screens twice on July 14th. I'm sorry I'll have to miss it, as I've been crossing my fingers for a chance to see it theatrically for well over a decade. The über-rare film showcases terrific performance footage from a series of round-the-world concerts featuring post-punks and new wavers like XTC, Oingo Boingo, Gang of Four, Devo, the Go-Go's, the Dead Kennedys, the Police, and more.

Sunday, June 24


Spare the Fare

Make no mistake, I'm no fan of ground-level ozone, a major component of smog that can collect over highly populated areas like Frisco Bay, especially on windless summer days.

I donated (admittedly not for entirely altruistic reasons) the only car I've ever owned nearly five years ago, and I haven't looked back since. So I feel fairly comfortable guessing that my transportation choices are not a major contributor to air pollution. I could probably stand to ride my bicycle more often, but at least I can say that when I'm in a motor vehicle, it's almost always a public bus. My $45 monthly MUNI pass puts me on local buses, trains and cable cars almost every day. It doesn't, however, take me to my favorite movie theatres outside the Frisco city limits.

No, for that I must pay a little extra. Excursions to the BART station closest to the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley cost $6.50 round-trip, while getting to Palo Alto and the Stanford Theatre and back costs $11.50. So I'm happy to get a little financial relief where I can find it, including the Spare the Air days when, due to a higher-than-desirable reading on an Air Quality Index, public transit is free all across the Frisco Bay area. With a July-August schedule as tantalizing as the PFA's latest is (the new Stanford web calendar is not up yet), I know I won't be able to attend everything I want to. So why not hope that the summer's four "Spare the Air" free transit opportunities might land on days when there's something particularly compelling playing in reach of CalTrain or BART.

Here then, are the four weekdays from now through the end of August which I'd most like to see a "Spare the Air" day declared:

Friday, June 29th. The Shohei Imamura series at the PFA comes to a close this weekend, and tonight the selections are his 1975 documentary Karayuki-san: the Making of a Prostitute and his 1997 Cannes prize-winner the Eel. But for a little more bang for my transit non-buck, I'd also consider heading down to the Union City BART station, hopping on AC transit, and seeing one of the programs in that weekend's 10th Annual Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival program in Niles: that afternoon there's a free in-person reminiscence with Diana Serra Cary (Baby Peggy). That evening is a screening of the Raven, Poe as directed by Charles Brabin of the Mask of Fu Manchu and the Valley of the Giants (which will be part of another upcoming Silent Film Festival on this side of the Bay). The trouble is, tickets to the Broncho Billy festival are selling out fast and "Spare the Air" days can sneak up on you with little warning. In other words, I probably need to make my decision now, without taking Air Quality Forecasts into account.

Thursday, July 19th. There's a mouth-wateringly thorough Abbas Kiarostami film series playing at the PFA through July and August, and though I'm woefully under-versed in this highly-regarded, influential filmmaker (I've seen only three of his features so far) I want especially to make an opportunity to expose myself to his never-before-imported early films. Tonight matches the Experience with the Wedding Suit as well as several shorter works. However, another option would be to bypass Berkeley and head to the El Cerrito BART station, where the Cerrito Speakeasy Theatre will be showing Miracle in Milan, the film Vittorio De Sica directed between Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. The Kiarostami films are scheduled to play on other days as well, but this is the only currently-scheduled chance to see this 1951 landmark of Italian neorealism.

Friday, July 20th. Another outstanding "Great Director" retrospective coming to the PFA is a 14-film series of Max Ophuls films curated by Susan Oxtoby. The series brings together films from five different countries the German-born director worked in throughout the thirties, forties and fifties. It includes relatively well-known films such as Le plaisir (playing July 22) and the Reckless Moment (July 27) and Lola Montès (August 3), as well as more obscure titles like From Mayerling to Sarajevo (presented in 16mm on July 29) and the Tender Enemy (in 35mm, like the rest of the series, August 17th). But of all of the gaps in his filmography I'd like to fill, La ronde seems to be the most gaping. And of all his films I've seen only on videocassette that I'd like to take a better look at on a cinema screen, Letter From an Unknown Woman is the one I'd most urgently want to revisit. Since they're playing on the same night to open the series, this night is my highest priority attendance.

Friday, August 24th. As excited I am to sample the Kiarostami and Ophuls offerings, perhaps the upcoming PFA series with the greatest mind-blowing potential is From the Tsars to the Stars: a Journey Through Russian Fantastik Cinema in August. It's a collection of mostly-Soviet-era science fiction and fantasy films ranging from silent films like the Cameraman's Revenge (Aug. 10) and Aelita, Queen of Mars (Aug. 12) to the worlds imagined by post-Khrushchev Thaw filmmakers of both the popular (Ptushko) and art cinema (Tarkovsky) bent. But it's tonight's selections I'm quite possibly the most curious about, particularly the 2005 fake documentary First on the Moon which imagines an alternate history of Soviet spacecraft in which a cosmonaut named Ivan Kharlamov reached the moon more than thirty years before Neil Armstrong made his "small step for man."

Four runners-up, with complications:

Friday, July 6th. The only pair of films in the upcoming Barbara Stanwyck centennial series scheduled to play the PFA but not the Castro is Night Nurse with Stella Dallas. I've never seen the latter film, which was directed by King Vidor and sounds amazing. Unfortunately I will be busy with a prior engagement (not even involving movies) that evening and will have to miss out, Spare the Air or no.

Friday, July 13th. That a Theatre Near You non-series always brings mouth-watering titles to the PFA. This time around I've seen all but one of them (12:08 East of Bucharest July 14) before one way or another. There's not a one I wouldn't recommend, and only one (White Light/Black Rain) I'm not eager to see again. But the one I most would like to revisit is Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "elliptical" (sorry, Armond) investigation of modernity in a traditional society, Syndromes and a Century. But both of its scheduled screenings are during the weekend of the Silent Film Festival. D'oh! I guess I won't be revisiting this stupendous film again for a little while longer.

Tuesday, July 31st. This time it's not the PFA's Stanwyck films that are calling me strongly; if I catch the Lady Eve in this series it will probably be this Wednesday at the Castro, and Ladies They Talk About is the one film in the series I don't particularly like or want to see again. No, I'd like to get a free ride to Berkeley that day because Roda is hosting a screening of Film Fanatic, a documentary on an "ultra-Orthodox" Jewish filmmaker in Israel and one of the few films in the upcoming Jewish Film Festival not scheduled to screen at a Frisco venue -- only in Berkeley and Palo Alto (at the Aquarius July 29). It also happens to be one of the most intriguing-sounding films in that festival for me, a seeming counterpart to one of my favorite films from this year's Sundance, VHS-Kahloucha. Unfortunately, I have to work Tuesdays (and Sundays) so "Spare the Air" or not, this is going to be a no-go for me.

Tuesday, August 14th. Did I mention I normally work into the evening on Tuesdays? Late enough that I won't be able to make the 7PM screening of Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker at the PFA unless I rearrange my schedule. Which I guess I'm just going to have to try to do, as Stalker just might be at the very top of the list of films I want to see on the big screen. Where it's been for several years, well before 2003, which was the last time I missed a one-day booking of this film because I was at work.

Note that I pointedly did not pick any Wednesdays; that's because in July and August those days at the PFA will be reserved for a series called Eco-Amok! an Inconvenient Film Fest, with Frogs, Phase IV and Habitat among the terrifying, yet environmentally conscious, titles. This post edges dangerously close to root-to-pollute as it is, and I don't want to tempt nature's sense of irony too brazenly.

In fact, I'm honestly quite likely to jump on BART and attend a good number of these screenings even without the lure of fare-free travel. Honestly, we'd all breathe easiest if the next few months on Frisco Bay were so smog-free that no "Spare the Air" days needed to be declared.

But if they're going to declare any, just don't let them be on Mondays. That's the day when the PFA's closed.

Thursday, June 14


Two years

Yesterday marked two years to the date from when I first started this blog, with a little recap of films I'd recently seen on home video and at the Roxie.

A few days later I put up what after two years I still consider one of my very favorite posts here, a reflection on the Joy of Life, one of the films in that year's Frameline festival. It's a favorite not only because the film's director Jenni Olson actually read the piece and left a comment, something I didn't notice until months later, but because I felt like I really was able to say a lot about the film, even without formulating my thoughts into a "real" review (a craft I still have little patience for honing myself, knowing there are so many others clearly so talented at it and interested in it), or even complete sentences sometimes. I've often thought I should try using this approach on other films, and maybe I do to an extent. But it never seems to work as naturally as it did for me that one time. There's something about that film, I think...

But enough meta-blog babble. Frameline 31 opened at the Castro tonight and runs through June 24. Where I was completely without bearings, not knowing what films to see or whether to go at all a few days ago, I now feel like I have a handle on at least a good portion of what's playing on the program, thanks to Michael Guillen, Michael Hawley, and the Bay Guardian staff. Typically for me, it's the vintage bottle that's caught my attention the most out of all the wines on the rack. Lizzie Borden's Born in Flames, which I'd never heard of before, sounds like a real must-see.

Of the other must-sees visible on the Frisco filmgoing horizon, surely the most essential is the Jean Renoir in the Thirties series running every Sunday and Thursday in July and August at SFMOMA, starting with La Chienne on July 1, 5 and 8. It's by no means a complete series (the most notable omission of his thirties films I've seen is certainly Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, which I hope plays another nearby screen soon, as I've only seen a rather poor video copy) but there isn't a dud in the bunch, unless perhaps it's the one I haven't seen before, even on video: La Marseillaise (playing July 22, 26 & 29). I'm excited to get a chance to see it on the big screen (I sincerely doubt it's a dud), as well as another shot at the new print of the Rules of the Game August 23, 26, and 30. I'd also like to point to the July 12, 15, and 19 pairing of a Day in the Country with Boudu Saved From Drowning, two films every self-respecting cinephile ought to watch back-to-back at least once in her or his life. Coincidentally, I just wrote a few words on Boudu Saved From Drowning's ending as part of my final post at Cinemarati.

More delightful masterpieces of French cinema (as opposed to "ponderous, weighty masterpieces of French cinema", though these don't want for a certain kind of depth either) coming up: Madame de... on August 17th at the Pacific Film Archive (the rest of that theatre's upcoming schedule yet to be announced, other than an assurance of Barbara Stanwyck films throughout July), and Mon Oncle at the Crest Theatre in Sacramento as part of a French Film Festival July 20-29. I don't consider our state's capital to be part of my purview here (it may be "Hell", but it isn't exactly what I'd call "on Frisco Bay.") However, this festival annually screens a noteworthy title or two that we don't get to see all the way out at this end of the Sacramento River. Tati's 1958 Oscar-winner hasn't shown in 35mm in Frisco for years, making me wonder if a little road trip might be feasible. I'll wait for more titles to be announced to really start to consider it.

Though it's not like we're lacking in film festivals out here on the coast, as anyone who's ever glanced at this blog before should recognize. Sometimes there's two or three running at once, like this weekend when the Black Film Festival overlaps with Frameline (earlier tonight, the closing program of the aptly-named Another Hole in the Head made it three.) Next month, LaborFest, at the Roxie and elsewhere July 5-31, overlaps with the Silent Film Festival at the Castro and the Jewish Film Festival at the Castro and elsewhere. The latter has sent out schedules to the addresses on its snail mail list, and has promised to reveal details on its website on June 19th. Then in August a new festival appears in town: the Dead Channels Festival of Fantastic Film will play at the Castro and Roxie from the 9th to the 16th. Among the sneak peek announced titles are Trapped Ashes, a new omnibus film with segments directed by Ken Russell, Joe Dante and Monte Hellman among others, and David Cronenberg's crucial early work Crimes of the Future presented with a score performed live by members of the sleek and mysterious Frisco band I Am Spoonbender. That should be an interesting event, to say the least. Crimes of the Future is by no means a silent film, but its soundtrack already seems like the sort of thing the Spoonbender folks might have come up with themselves (perhaps it was an early influence on them, even though it was a pretty difficult film to track down until recently?) Several years ago I saw the Eames film Powers of Ten with the band providing a live alternative soundtrack, and they really did a good job making it their own without overwhelming the imagery whatsoever.

Last but not absolutely not least, I was recently informed by Max Goldberg, who writes excellent articles for the Guardian, that SF Camerawork will be presenting 16mm screenings of the Nathaniel Dorsky films that, unless you planned ahead, you were probably sold out of when screened at the Yerba Buena Center last winter. The films will be shown on August 2nd and 16th, and will be presented by Kino21, the best news to come along for Frisco avant-garde film enthusiasts in a while. Thanks for the tip, Max! Kino21 will also be presenting a neo-Benshi event at Artists Television Access on July 7th.

Saturday, June 9


Watching, Reading, Talking, Writing, Anticipating

I've been selfish. Over the past few weeks, while I've been silent here at Hell on Frisco Bay, I've been watching, reading about, talking about, writing about, and (perhaps what I do best) eagerly anticipating movies. I just haven't been sharing here. I guess everyblogger needs a little break sometimes. Let me catch you up a bit (there's some good links in here too, I promise).

I've sampled a couple films from the Shohei Imamura series, first at the Castro, and currently at the Pacific Film Archive. So far my favorite has been Hogs and Warships (a.k.a. Pigs and Battleships, but that was the translation on the print.) Scathingly anti-American, its anger is somehow even more directly focused against Japanese kowtowing to the American military presence. It plays again next Saturday at the PFA along with a Man Vanishes. I also Czeched out (sorry) a double bill in this series. Vladislav Vancura's On the Sunny Side was visually arresting, with its mix of low and high angle shots often placing the adults in the film in a subordinate position to the children, but tough to assimilate on a first try with all its flashbacks and frantic cutting. Martin Fric's Heave Ho! was a delight on a single viewing, fitting well within the tradition of depression-era physical comedy critiques of capitalistic industry, like a Nous La Liberte and Modern Times. It helped set me on a recent mini-binge of home video Charlie Chaplin rewatching (tonight I'll be showing Modern Times to some friends who've never seen it before), just as it sent me out of the theatre with the chorus to the collectivist anthem "Hej Rup!" on my lips.

I've been reading, as part of this Chaplin mini-binge, Richard Schickel's the Essential Chaplin, which collects together a diverse array of writing and opinion on the great silent clown and his films, from Andre Bazin's influential analysis, to Alistair Cooke's personal reminiscences, to reviews by the likes of Graham Greene, Otis Ferguson, Penelope Gilliat and Andrew Sarris. Schickel even includes a piece by at least one Chaplin naysayer: George Jean Nathan, who, while evaluating City Lights, calls him "a limited actor", "a shabby musician", an "ingratiating clown" and finally "frequently a bore." I've also been reading This Film is Dangerous, a terrific anthology of archivists' essays and reflections on the properties of nitrate film stock. It's large enough to be for all practical purposes importable; needless to say this is my nightstand reading.

And of course I've been reading internet writing on film. I've been trying to keep up with most of the blogs on my ever-growing blogroll, but would like to particularly point out a few items of particular interest to Frisco moviegoers. Though I haven't yet made it to any screenings at this year's Another Hole in the Head Film Festival (I'll be at the Roxie for Bad Bugs Bunny Sunday), I've attended vicariously thanks to near-daily reports from Jason Wiener and, though he's reporting remotely from Atlanta, Georgia, Jay, aka the Angry Little Man. Also, Sara Schieron has interviewed the makers of Blood Car, and Michael Guillen has been writing on the festival for sf360 and his own site.

I've been talking about movies with friends and fellow cinephiles here in Frisco, but I've also been contributing to discussions as a blog commenter here and there. For some reason, even while I'm neglecting my own blog, I still can't resist joining discussions at other blogs such as Film of the Year, girish, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, and more. One sad note: Cinemarati is disbanding this week, and its website is set to disappear soon, removing one of my favorite options for intelligent film discussion. I've joined the new yahoo group and may find myself participating there.

I've been writing about film, finishing up my (volunteer) work for the Silent Film Festival research committee, the whole process of which has been as much fun as it has been a growth experience for me. With a great deal of support and editing assistance from the other members of the group, I've written for the program guide an essay on one of the films selected for this year's July 13-15 festival. Now that the festival's program has been announced, I can reveal that "my" film is William C. de Mille's Miss Lulu Bett, a 1921 film starring Lois Wilson, based on the novel and Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Zona Gale. I chose the film at the first committee meeting because I knew it had been inducted into the National Film Registry in 2001, and because I'd become intrigued by de Mille's direction of the one film I'd seen by him, Two Kinds of Women. I had no idea Miss Lulu Bett would be such a terrific film, or that William de Mille, Zona Gale and Lois Wilson would be so interesting to research. It will play at the Castro Theatre on Sunday, July 15th at 3:35 PM with a live musical score performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Arrive a little early and you'll see a slide show I put together on the de Mille family.

Other films in the program include Beggars of Life, a thrilling hobo drama featuring Louise Brooks as a cross-dressing trainhopper. Released more than a year before the Stock Market Crash of 1929, it's hard not to wonder how many people might have first seen the rail-riding lifestyle with the film's release, only to find themselves living it soon afterward. Camille paired two stars so big they only need a name apiece: Valentino and Nazimova, who was really the driving creative force behind the film despite a director credit to Ray C. Smallwood. Valley of the Giants may sound like a familiar title, as the Peter B. Kyne story has been filmed several times (most recently in 1952 as the Big Trees with Kirk Douglas), but the 1927 version brought by the festival is one of the least-seen versions. Cecil B. DeMille's The Godless Girl is coming to DVD later this year, but how can anyone miss a rare opportunity to see reform school Christians and atheists clash on the big Castro screen with Dennis James behind the organ?

The festival opens with James accompanying Ernst Lubitsch's the Student Prince of Old Heidelburg, one of the titles missed from the recent PFA retrospective of the director's work. As always, there are tributes to silent comedy (a Hal Roach program) and the silent cinema of other countries. In this case England, with a Cottage on Dartmoor, Italy, with Maciste, a modern-day (for 1915) offshoot from the historical spectacle Cabiria, that launched a series of muscleman pictures that lasted into the 1970s, and France. Representing the latter, Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films will present a program called Retour de Flamme, which will showcase a Chunnell-full of Gallic shorts from the likes of Georges Méliès, Segundo de Chomon, Ferdinand Zecca and others, all but one title completely unavailable on Region 1 DVD, and some titles so secret they haven't even been disclosed to members of the research committee.

Speaking of the members of the research committee, I just wanted to mention that each and every one of them was a pleasure to get to know in the confines of our biweekly gab-sessions, and through e-mail discussions. As a new member of the group I was humbled in the presence of a bunch of people who really know their silent films. I'd met Richard Hildreth before through his blog Supernatural, Perhaps -- Baloney, Perhaps Not, but it was great fun getting to know and talk film with him, with Margarita Landazuri of the Turner Classic Movies website and elsewhere, with Scott Brogan of the Judy Room, and with David Kiehn of the Niles Essanay Film Museum, which is putting together an extremely-tantalizing 35mm silent film festival of its own in Fremont on June 30-July 1, two weekends before the Silent Film Society's. Not to mention all the other members of the committee (only because I suspect some might be the shy sort when it comes to the blogosphere).

I've admittedly been biased by having talked about all the films on this schedule with a fun, diverse group of passionate film history enthusiasts, but I'm extremely excited to get to see them for the first time (and, in the case of Miss Lulu Bett and Beggars of Life, the latter of which will be presented in a brand-new 35mm print, the first time on the big screen with a live orchestra) next month.

I've also been excitedly anticipating all sorts of other events on the Frisco film horizon. Frameline 31 begins this Thursday, July 14th with the North American premiere of Andre Techine's the Witnesses, but I haven't a clue what else to pick out from its massive program. Any suggestions? Also coming to the Castro is a new Fabulous Fashion in Film festival with potential highlights including Blonde Venus August 1st and Grey Gardens (hopefully a projectable print this time, unlike last November's Castro booking of the Maysles Brothers film) July 30. Peaches Christ has announced her Midnight Mass line-up (guests galore include John Waters, Tura Satana and Elvira herself). And, though the venue hasn't put its schedule up beyond July 1st, when a delightful Jim Henson series wraps up there, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts has a really mouth-watering set of programs coming soon, as revealed at the end of Sean Uyehara's fascinating interview with programmer Joel Shephard from last month.

What are you anticipating seeing on Frisco movie screens this summer?

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