Friday, November 30


Quick Flick Picks

On the eve of a day-long movie marathon, I just wanted to get some items off of my to-blog list.

In my last post on silent film, I mentioned that the Berlin and Beyond festival will, as usual, be showing a German silent film as part of its 2008 program. It's just been revealed that the festival, running January 10-16 at the Castro Theatre, will present the 1929 comedy the Oddball with live musical accompaniment by Dennis James.

Some noteworthy though not-so-silent entries in Berlin and Beyond 2008 include Michael Verhoeven's the Unknown Soldier, and a three-film tribute to the recently-deceased actor Ulrich Mühe: along with his recent triumph in the Lives of Others the festival will screen a film from his East German film career, Half of Life, and his role in the Austrian Michael Haneke's 1997 Funny Games, just before the Sundance premiere of that director's apparently all-but shot-for-shot remake. The opening night film is the Edge of Heaven by Fatih Akin, contradicting the program guide on the Castro's website, which says it will be Yella. Christian Petzod's film will still play in the festival, but its opening slot was switched out for Akin's after the Castro schedules went to press.

Speaking of which, there's a lot to talk about on those Castro schedules, and I'm not even going to cover it all here. A MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS triple bill of Burt Reynolds films including Peter Bogdanovich's rarely-revived tribute to Lubitsch, At Long Last Love, plays December 7th, and another threefer starts with possibly the most heartbreaking summer vacation movie of my teenage years, which was also Winona Ryder's first film role, Lucas. That plays February 8th, the Friday before Valentine's Day (on which Marc Huestis brings Olivia Hussey for the 40th anniversary of Romeo & Juliet.)

There's another in the Castro's continuing series of classic films organized by composer, this time nine days (December 26-January 3) of double-bills scored by the great Miklos Rosza, including multiple collaborations with Billy Wilder and Vincent Minelli. January 4-9 brings the nine of the ten most well-known pairings of the "Emperor" Akira Kurosawa and his "Wolf" Toshiro Mifune. They made sixteen films together, and I wish the selection included Red Beard or some of the rarely-screened early films like the Quiet Duel and the Idiot, but I'm glad for the opportunity to see any of these again on the Castro's mighty screen. I've never seen the Seven Samurai, for example, on anything larger than a regular television set, which is probably enough to send me to the cinephile stocks.

If you're concerned about how to fit the new cut of Blade Runner playing at the Embarcadero into your schedule this week, know that it will make a return appearance at the Castro for a week starting February 15th. The early-eighties revival I'm most excited about seeing in a Landmark theatre is one I've never seen in any cut before: Jean-Jacques Beniex's Diva, which opens at the Shattuck in Berkeley as well as somewhere in Frisco December 7th.

The Roxie has a pair of films from this past spring's SF International Film Festival on its upcoming slate. One I've seen and can recommend: Les Blank's new documentary All in This Tea. Not being particularly interested in gourmet tea varieties, I was skeptical going in, but I found the film to be a fun but serious peek into the blossoming of capitalism in China. It opens December 14th. The other is one I missed in May but won't in January, when it opens on the 11th: El Violin from Mexico.

The Red Vic has its full December (highlight: the Draughtsman's Contract on the 16th & 17th) and January (highlight: the Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford on the 15th & 16th) schedules online, but its paper copy extends a bit beyond that, revealing among other things that the Battle of Algiers will play February 3-4.

More time-sensitive news is that two programs of British experimental films from the 1960s and 1970s will play at at the SF Art Institute this coming Monday evening, December 3rd. This tip comes from Jim Flannery, who left it on the cinephile bulettin board that is girish's blog. More on the series here. It's the beginning of a busier-than-usual week of public screenings at SFAI, where a cellphone film event called mini-PAH will take place December 7-8.

SFMOMA, which is currently reprising the Joseph Cornell films it showed earlier this fall as part of its exhibition on the collagist, has also been running a fascinating film series I'm sorry I haven't really mentioned here before. In conjunction with a Jeff Wall exhibition, the museum will screen John Huston's Fat City this and next Saturday afternoon, R.W. Fassbinder's proto-emo-fest masterwork the Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant December 13th and 15th, Ingmar Bergman's Persona December 20th and 22nd, and perhaps most exciting since I've never seen this legendary epic, Jean Eustache's the Mother and the Whore December 27th and 29th. Then, beginning January 5th with a screening of Point of Order, SFMOMA will run a retrospective of the films of Emile de Antonio. In the Year of the Pig plays January 19th and 24th.

The current Year of the Pig ends February 6th, 2008. You may know that the Japanese Zodiac is based on the Chinese Zodiac, though the Pig is replaced with the Wild Boar in Japan (in Thailand the Pig becomes an Elephant). But since Japan celebrates New Year January 1st like we in the West, not the Lunar New Year of the Chinese, the Year of the Boar will end sooner than the Year of the Pig. Have I lost you yet? Either way, the new 12-year Zodiac cycle will begin next year, on either January 1st or February 7th, with the Year of the Rat. Shortly after the latter there will be a Pacific Film Archive tribute to Japanese-American silent film actor Sessue Hayakawa, who was born in 1889 (the year of the Ox, like me only 84 years earlier). February 9th screens Hayakawa's star-making role in Cecil B. DeMille's the Cheat, and on February 10th the Devil's Claim and Forbidden Paths will be shown. All three will be accompanied by Judith Rosenberg on piano, and are presented in connection with a two-day conference on silent film called Border Crossings: Re-Thinking Early Cinema. Fascinating stuff, and I'm hopeful that there will be more Hayakawa films announced soon.

Sunday, November 25


Time for a list

Ten reasons to come to the Silent Film Festival's winter program at the Castro Theatre this Saturday, December 1st:

1. To experience three completely different facets of silent-era Hollywood in a single day. D.W. Griffith's Intolerance demonstrates the outer possibilities of feature filmmaking in 1916, when Hollywood was being built. Flesh and the Devil just might represent the quintessence of star-system filmmaking in 1926, when studios like MGM had grown into the same basic form they'd remain in for decades to come. And the Vitaphone Vaudeville program showcases silent-era experiments in audiovisual motion pictures.

2. Live musical performances from incomparable organist Dennis James for both Flesh and the Devil and Intolerance. The latter will also be accompanied by a second sort of live "performance" in the projection booth as Patrick Stanbury of Photoplay Productions monitors the changing film speed for the tinted print that will make its national debut at the event. Intolerance is, it must be admitted, too often thought of as an academic heirloom, but the unique conditions under which it's being screened on Saturday seem likely to maximize the film's entertainment value.

3. See the history of vaudeville in a theatre that began as a part of that history. Like the Golden Gate and the Warfield Theatre, I understand that the Castro was originally built in 1922 to showcase both movies and vaudeville acts. Watching these movies that are our best remaining preservations of those acts in a genuine former vaudeville venue- can you ask for a combination more natural?

4. The program can serve as the centerpiece of a whole winter season of watching silent films on Frisco Bay. It's a perfect warm-up for the Castro Theatre's retrospective of Charlie Chaplin films December 2-12, also currently ongoing at the Pacific Film Archive. The night before the event, November 30th, there's a screening of Harry Langdon in the Strong Man as part of the Stanford Theatre's Frank Capra tribute. The Rafael Film Center is hosting a December 6th evening of the Films of 1907, two hours of centennial-celebrating shorts including Pathé's the Dancing Pig, which played on the SFSFF's Retour de Flamme program in July, and the Red Spectre, which didn't. The 13th Berlin & Beyond Film Festival will show an as-yet-unannounced German silent during its festival in January. The Balboa has announced it will celebrate its annual birthday bash with a February 27 screening of the Black Pirate. And of course the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont continues its Saturday evening screenings, even during the holiday season while many local specialty screening venues are closed. In particular, here's a chance to see Intolerance at the Castro precisely two weeks before Buster Keaton's spoof on Griffith's film, the Three Ages, plays at Niles December 15th.

5. From the imdb credit listings for Intolerance: Douglas Fairbanks plays a "Man on White Horse." Tod Browning plays "a Crook." W.S. Van Dyke plays a "Wedding Guest." Eugene Pallette plays "Prosper Latour." Wallace Reid is a "Boy Killed in the Fighting." King Vidor and Frank Borzage have uncredited, unidentified extra roles. And that's just a sampling of the names familiar to cinephiles, who it will be fun to try to spot on the screen. Relatedly, I've recently been skeptically reading Anthony Slide's Silent Players, which is packed with gossipy mini-biographies of silent film stars who were a big deal ninety years ago, playing major roles in Intolerance and other films, but are all but forgotten today: Elmer Clifton, Miriam Cooper, Howard Gaye, Robert Harron, Seena Owen, Constance Talmadge, etc. Even Mae Marsh is not spoken of often any longer but gets a nice profile in this book. Which reminds me, the festival's Booksmith table is always a tremendous place to find relevant reading during the event.

6. For the listologists: three of the films playing are part of the Library of Congress's National Film Registry. Intolerance was among the first 25 selections for the registry back in 1989. The George Burns & Gracie Allen Vitaphone short Lambchops made the list in 1999, and Flesh and the Devil was inducted just last year.

7. 2007 marks the 80th anniversary of the Jazz Singer, and the year has seen a cameo role for the film in Indiewood's upcoming the Savages, its first-ever DVD release, and an ensuing debate about blackface and the film's relevancy today. One thing's for certain: the Jazz Singer could not have been the sensation that it was had there not been a sufficient number of theatres wired for sound before its release. It was the increasing popularity of Vitaphone shorts that paved that way. Most of the selections on the Vitaphone Vaudeville program were made after the Jazz Singer, but you should be able to get a good sense of the genre from the varied set. Though a selection of Vitaphone shorts were released as extras on the Jazz Singer DVD set, only three of the films playing on Saturday are among them; the other six have never been released on DVD or VHS. A few were released on LaserDiscs which are now highly sought-after.

8. Greta Garbo's face, which was never intended to be seen on a television set, not even a discounted Black Friday HDTV set. No, it was photographed by William Daniels to be seen dozens of feet high and wide on a screen like the Castro's. If you've ever wondered exactly what the big deal about Garbo was/is, here's an opportunity for the answer.

9. In an age when major Oscar nominations and wins are going to films like Crash and the Hours, which unite superficially disconnected stories together under a single theme, it seems a particularly good time to look at the most ambitious experiment along those lines: Intolerance. What would Griffith have thought of Babel, I wonder? (And perhaps just as pertinently, what would Edward Said have thought of it?)

10. And of course, in order to obtain the customary program guide with in-depth essays on the films, and to see the informative and entertaining slideshows, all written by my fellow members of the Silent Film Festival research committee. Several of the points in this post sprouted from seeds planted in my head during our discussions over the past few months.

Of course this list is by no means exhaustive. Any suggestions for #11?

Tuesday, November 20


Adam Hartzell interviews the director of Host & Guest

I have to hand it to the 10th SF Asian Film Festival and the 5th Korean American Film Festival, both of which ended for me Sunday with a screening of the 1963 Korean War movie Marines Who Never Returned. Its first ten minutes felt as eerily documentary-like a depiction of combat as any I've seen on film. It makes me glad I still live in the Richmond District not far from the 4 Star Theatre, though for some of the programs hosted there in the past week and a half I would certainly have traveled much longer distances. And I was delighted to learn last Friday that the venue had booked four more days of festival fun, starting yesterday and ending on Thanksgiving, in the form of a Chinese-American Film Festival. Along with films from China and the Chinese diaspora, there will be one more Korean film in the program. Sometime contributor to this site Adam Hartzell has more:
This year, when asked to help out with the San Francisco Korean American Film Festival, I decided it was time for me to do more than simply write the program notes as I have been asked to do in the past. And do more I did, much more than a guy who has a regular day job that requires him to wake up at 4:30 AM, work 10 hour days, and travel abroad from anywhere from a month to two months should really do, but that’s what you get sometimes for volunteering. Thankfully, I worked with a great bunch of people who equally worked their butts off. But regardless of how much you work, some things just don’t work out.

And one of those things that didn’t work out was we weren’t able to get Sin Dong-il’s (alternate Romanization is Shin) wonderful film Host & Guest into the festival. This had to do with coordination difficulties across the globe, conflicting country holidays and work schedules. Let’s just say I was working outside of my skill set. But thankfully, Director Sin intervened on my behalf and Frank Lee of the 4 Star Theatre offered to open up some slots amidst his Chinese-American Film Festival that began this Monday. Host & Guest will be screening this Wednesday, November 21st at 9:30pm, and Thanksgiving Day at 5pm.

It’s been over two years since I’ve seen Host & Guest, but it’s a film that's slowly grown on me as I've sat with the images and dialogue of the bizarre coupling of a bitter, arrogant film-less Film Professor and a conscientiously-objecting Jehovah's Witness. What I recall after two years away from the film (for thoughts fresh from my viewing the film at the Pusan International Film Festival in 2005 you can go here) is that I appreciated how, although strong in its contempt for the Cheney/Bush administration, the film didn’t focus its critique solely outward, but inward as well. Host & Guest is equally as critical of the South Korean government as it is the United States. Host & Guest is equally critical of itself as it is others. In this way, what might appear clumsy in less skillful hands was gently laid to grow within my thoughts and my emotions that followed me after sharing witness with Sin’s vision.

I asked Sin if I could do an interview with him of a few simple questions over email. I offered him the option to respond in Korean if he felt more comfortable speaking in his first language. He responded mostly in Korean with an exception I will note. Along with thanking Sin for taking the time to answer my brief, amateurish questions, I must also thank Kaya Lee for her willingness to translate under a tighter deadline than I’d prefer to request. I adjusted some of her translation for flow, but I wouldn’t have been able to do this without her. Equally helpful to bringing the film to San Francisco were the SF Korean American Film Festival director Waylon McGuigan, Frank Lee of the 4 Star Theatre, Kim Hee-jeon of CJ Entertainment, and Director Sin’s sister who lives in the Bay Area but whom I won’t name because time constraints don’t allow for me to confirm whether she’s comfortable with my posting her name here.

The following is the interview.

Adam Hartzell, for Hell on Frisco Bay: The title, Host & Guest, is an interesting one. What brought you to use that title for the film?

Director Sin Dong-il: I was building the story’s plot and surprisingly, the English title Host and Guest came across my mind before the Korean title. I really loved the English title; so, I chose one of the main characters’ names as “Ho-jun” from “Host” and the other’s name was “Gye-sang” from “Guest”. I felt so much interest in the idea that two characters who have totally different ideologies respectively on the surface meet each other as a host and an uninvited guest, that is, as a visitor. As their relationship proceeds, each character becomes a host and a guest as well, and it means both are the host of their own lives.

HoFB: Could you talk a little bit about military service in South Korea to give American audiences an understanding of it since an understanding of the obligation all young Korean adults have is important to the film?

Director Sin: Korean people have been considering men’s military service as an obligation that they should accept naturally without doubt because of ideological confrontation and military tension between North and South Korea which has been ongoing for more than 50 years. Such represents that nationalism is controlling Korean people’s consciousness. It is true that people who refused the military obligation under conscience demands for peace have not been known to the South Korean public. I believe nationalism is an anachronism as the cold war composition has already collapsed around the world.

HoFB: Being a first time film director, having one character be a film professor who has never made a film makes me wonder how much he is based on your own experiences. Does that character represent your life in any way? Or is he more the kind of person you are worried you could become?

Director Sin: My life experience helped in making the film. Unlike the U.S. film market, South Korea’s independent film industry is very vulnerable. It is very hard to pursue my original thought into film without negotiating with the commercial/business world. South Korea’s film industry is focusing on box-office value too much. Actually it will bring serious risks/result in the end. I débuted with a feature film, but making a feature film is too hard. I am so gloomy whenever I think about how to get financial support for my third film. If anybody is interested in my third work after watching Host and Guest, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I always welcome producers for my work… just like a host and a guest. [laugh] It’s half seriousness and half joke. In addition, even though Ho-jun is called a professor, he is actually a part time instructor.

HoFB: If there is any kind of statement about the film you wish to make, feel free to add anything else you might want to say.

Director Sin: [Here, Director Sin Dong-il chose to type in English.]

Most people see only what they want to see. This world labels you a stranger once you trespass the standardized rules of the society. I want to open the door that is shut fast to these strangers.

If you want to look at this film closely, I would like to call your attention to Ho-jun’s snobbish elitism, deeply ingrained in his personality. Ho-jun finds himself transformed into an enemy of himself after having gone through days full of breakdowns and failures. He then meets Gye-sang, another soul, who’s also wounded by the prejudice and ignorance of the world. Thanks to Gye-sang, Ho-jun finds himself again, no longer as a "visitor" in his own life, but as both "host" and "guest."

I dedicate this humble film to those who are dreaming of a different world.

Friday, November 9


Film Festival Frenzy

It's common knowledge that Frisco Bay is home to a lot of film festivals. But this November is the busiest month for them in my memory. It's enough to make a body want to throw up its hands and stay away from even thinking about them all. Which, given the quietness here at Hell On Frisco Bay, may appear to be just what I've done. It's not true though. I have other excuses. But for now, let me just dive in and survey the festival scene to the best of my ability right now:

I'm excited by the return, after more than two years absence, of the SF Asian Film Festival, now in its tenth year at the Four Star Theatre. There are also screenings at the Castro: last night's opening film Genghis Khan: to the Ends of Earth and Sea and a closing day slate on Sunday, November 18th. Joining forces with the 10th SFAFF is the SF Korean American Film Festival, which, along with free DVD screenings of Korean films at SFSU's Coppola Theatre, will be presenting at the Four Star ten films programmed by Denise Hwang and Sun-young Moon of KOFIC as a nationally touring program. So far I've seen half of these ten films and can attest to the strength and diversity of a line-up including the jealousy-fueled road movie Driving With My Wife's Lover (which I saw at Sundance, pictured above), and Barking Dogs Never Bite, Grain in Ear, and the King and the Clown (which I saw thanks to various other Frisco festivals.)

But I'm most impressed with the rare selection of classic Korean films being presented in the line-up. There are a pair of Korean War films, 1963's Marines Who Never Returned and 1974's Wildflower in the Battlefield, and this afternoon I caught a screening of the 1958 a Flower in Hell. Not a war film, it nonetheless is set in the shadow of the American military presence on the peninsula, as it tracks the pathways of yang gongju prostitutes and black marketeers on a barb-wired army base. It's a somewhat similar, if inland, milieu to the Japanese coastal one Shohei Imamura depicted in Pigs and Battleships a few years later. The story of a fresh-faced outsider to this world becoming seduced by his scar-faced brother's femme fatale wife may seem familiar, but the particular details, as well as director Shin Sang-ok's stylistic touches, certainly won't. I was very intrigued by Shin's method of cross-cutting between simultaneous actions, temporally almost in the style of a flashback-and-return, though context makes clear that a flashback it is not, especially when we do get to see the film employ a flashback to a childhood memory, utilizing a technique I can't remember encountering before: the illusion of a single-shot pan from present to past. A Flower in Hell plays at the Four Star again tomorrow afternoon at 5:35 and is a rare opportunity to sample a classic that has stood the test of time in its native Korea. More information about the SFAFF and the SFKAFF can be found in Michael Guillen's interview with Adam Hartzell at the Evening Class.

On Wednesday I attended and mildly liked the Chilean improvisation-based film the Sacred Family at the Roxie Film Center. It's part of the Global Lens 2007 series of subtitled films, which plays at various Frisco Bay venues through November 15th. Unfortunately, I understand that Global Lens screenings at the Balboa are no longer planned despite the information on the festival website, and that all the remaining Frisco Bay screenings of these films will be video projections. More information on the Global Lens 2007 lineup is available here and here.

I haven't yet made it to this year's Latino Film Festival, running at various Frisco Bay venues through November 18th, but I hear that the laudable decision to screen on 35mm prints at the Castro was subverted by technical snags. I hope they don't deter future presentations in 35mm for this festival or others. More information about this festival can be found here and here.

This weekend marks the beginning of the SF Film Society's second-busiest season of the year (after the annual International Film Festival in the Spring, of course). Last night a documentary called the Pixar Story (on guess what Frisco Bay animation production company?) opened the 2nd Annual International Animation Festival, which is putting a trove of animated shorts and features on display at the Embarcadero over the next couple days. Here is a terrific interview with festival programmer Sean Uyehara. And as soon as the IAF is over, the Film Society's annual New Italian Cinema series begins, also at the Embarcadero. More here. After a breather for Thanksgiving, the Society resumes its year-round SF360 Movie Night November 29th with the French film Her Name is Sabine. Benefit screenings of Gus Van Sant's new Paranoid Park December 8th at the Letterman Digital Arts Center and the animated Persepolis December 12th at the Kabuki are also open to the paying public.

The 32nd American Indian Film Festival closes tomorrow at the Palace of Fine Arts with its awards show. Apologies for not having mentioned this festival in time to point to any of the film screenings. Hopefully you read this in time anyway.

The 3rd i South Asian Film Festival begins Friday, November 16 at the Victoria Theatre with a program of shorts made by Frisco Bay residents of South Asian descent, and then continues with the unconventional, quietly disquieting documentary John and Jane Toll-Free, a co-presentation with Konrad Steiner and Irinia Leimbacher's kino21. It's a peephole into the world of call centers staffed by the day-sleeping Mumbaikars who work long hours speaking to North Americans about things we'd rather not be bothered about, in language intended to keep us on the phone just a little bit longer than we otherwise would. First Aid Kits are sold as "Emergency Medical Systems" and the weather outside is "snowing" if anyone asks. But I'm not doing the depth of John and Jane Toll-Free's themes justice here. It's really something to see for yourself.

The next two days 3rd i moves into the Castro and then the Roxie. My most anticipated screening of the month (very narrowly beating out Jeanne Dielman next Tuesday at the PFA and the Phil Chambliss films at YBCA Thursday and Friday) is Guru Dutt's legendary Pyaasa, a fifty-year old film generally considered one of the great masterpieces of old Bollywood. I've never seen a single Dutt film, though I've wanted to for years. I'm thrilled I'm going to be able to see this one on the giant Castro screen on the morning of November 17th.

When November ends, festival season in Frisco does too, it seems. At least until January when Berlin and Beyond and Noir City arrive. But on December 1st, the Castro will host Frisco's last film festival hurrah for 2007, when the Silent Film Festival presents its third annual one-day Winter event. I must duly warn that I'm a volunteer for the festival, so I may be biased, but I think all three programs are must-sees. Flesh and the Devil is reputedly Greta Garbo's greatest Hollywood silent film, and the one that really confirmed her stardom here. The Vitaphone Vaudeville program contextualizes the technological developments of the late silent era, preserves the all-but-lost Vaudeville era into the modern era, and is certain to elicit laughter. And seeing the tinted Photoplay print of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance with Dennis James behind the organ seems like the ideal way to see this monument of cinema into the twenty-first century. But don't just take it from me, check out Anne M. Hockens' preview of the festival too!

Thursday, November 8



It's far too late for the Totally Unrelated Blog-a-Thon but I feel the need to talk about Halloween a bit. In my previous post, I bitched that the city leaders hadn't put together a plan for how to keep the revelry in the Castro safe. Now I'm not so sure. I'm impressed and a little chilled by how efficiently they were able to prevent much revelry at all. Though the late-breaking decision to close the 16th and Market BART station and the Castro MUNI station may have been made in a last-minute panic, I think it's more likely that the plan was hatched early on, but deliberately kept quiet in order to minimize the window of opportunity for public comment or organized protests. Add to these emergency-response-style measures a fear campaign, the strong-arming of "uncompliant" businesses, and a police presence even larger than last year's and it sounds like a recipe for a little taste of friendly fascism. Which might actually be considered a nice resume-builder for our newly-re-elected lame duck as he aspires to higher political office. I spent Halloween helping run a haunted house in an area of Frisco far from the Castro, so all of my thoughts on this topic come from hearsay and instinct. But yesterday's Bay Guardian article did a good job articulating and putting data to support some of the feelings I've had on the issue.

Maybe I'm seeing conspiracies everywhere because my role in the haunted house was that of a character called Major Canard, head of a corporate/military/scientific mobilization effort to control a zombie outbreak, though secretly responsible for said outbreak. Our concept was intended to point to hypocrisies and blurred lines between public and private, military and mercenary. And of course an excuse to have fun acting like zombies. I think we were successful in scaring the neighborhood. Anyway, my involvement in planning, building and tearing down this haunted house is one of the factors that has kept Hell on Frisco Bay so quiet for the past month or so. I can't guarantee that November will be a whole lot less quiet, but I do hope to have a new post on film up very soon.

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