Friday, April 25


SFIFF: the Sundance Connection

The 51st SF International Film Festival began last night, with a screening of Catherine Breillat's the Last Mistress at the Castro Theatre. Earlier tonight the festival expanded to its other venues, the PFA and the Kabuki, where it will stay for the next two weeks, drawing hardcore cinephiles and curious culture-watchers alike (the Clay and a few other venues broaden the festival's reach in the days to come.) The festival, more than any other film event of the Frisco Bay calendar year, feels like a party that the anyone in the city can join in, as long as they're willing to pay a $12.50 single-ticket admission price.

That price is a tad higher than most moviegoing around here will cost you, and with the elimination of matinee pricing this year there's all the more incentive for particularly active attendees to become a film society member (or, like me, a PFA member) to get a couple bucks lopped off each ticket price. However, all but a few specially-priced gala events will cost a non-member less than a ticket to, say, last year's Silent Film Festival, or an advance-sales ticket to a Sundance screening should you be in Utah when that festival rolls around. And, in fact, regular tickets cost less than certain screenings of non-festival fare at the Kabuki do, now that the theatre's been bought and made-over by the new Sundance Cinemas venture, with its amenities fees charged for assigning seats. While the SFIFF makes its home at the Kabuki, seats will not be assigned in advance and amenities fees will not be charged on top of the festival ticket price.

I've attended the Sundance Film Festival twice now; once as a member of the ticket-buying public, and once with a press pass that saved me a few hundred dollars in ticket costs. I have a press pass for the SFIFF too, but as usual I've purchased tickets to a certain few shows that I Absolutely Do Not Want To Miss (like Aditya Assarat's Wonderful Town), knowing that there is often greater demand for press tickets than there is supply. Though I honestly can only remember being shut out of a film once, for the Iranian film Iron Island, in the past five years that I've had a pass for the SFIFF, I don't like to take chances. Sundance is run differently; there's less incentive for press to buy advance tickets because their pass can be used to acquire a comp. ticket in any wait-list line.

Sundance is different from the SFIFF in many, many other ways, of course. For example, the programming at Sundance is far more AmerIndie-centric, leaving foreign films on the sidelines. Here's a good quote on the matter I recently found via the cinetrix, from former SFIFF director Peter Scarlet:
If you’re the maker of a foreign film and you accept an invitation to go to Sundance, it’s a little like getting a last-minute reservation at a trendy restaurant. You get a nice dish for you and your companion, you wear something sexy, but it turns out you’re seated at the tiny table right next to the restroom. I won’t even get into the aromas and whatnot.
It's a harsh statement, but there's certainly truth in it, as the lion's share of the attention at the Utah fest gets lavished upon homegrown productions. By contrast, the SFIFF and a good portion of its audience see foreign films, especially those directed by the world's master filmmakers, as a central piece of the festival mission. If not the core.

On my own trips to Sundance, I've attempted to swim against the tide and cover its foreign films with at least as much care and enthusiasm as the American offerings. One film I never quite got around to in my Sundance reports was the Jordanian documentary Recycle, which is also set to play at the SFIFF; an image from the film is featured on the cover of the festival's program guide. Recycle follows the routines of Abu Ammar, a resident of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's hometown of Zarqa. He drives his young son around the city, an industrial center in Jordan, picking up unused cardboard that he knows he can sell at a recycling center. It's a reminder that while recycling may still be seen as optional or even a luxury in opulent communities, the act becomes a necessity when poverty strikes. But Recycle's subject is not just recycling cardboard; he also saves notes to use in a book on religion he plans to write. He keeps sacks full of these paper scraps, and they're not the only evidence director Mahmoud al Massad presents that seems intended to make us wonder if Abu Ammar has been radicalized into a potentially dangerous fundamentalist along the lines of Zarqawi. Sometimes Al Massad's frustrating metaphor of a "recycled terrorist" seems at times heavy-handed and at other times vague, but the film is filled with enough sarcastic characters and absurd images, like a camel stand on the edge of town, or a cardboard eye becoming swallowed up by churning liquid at the recycling center, to make it much more than just a metaphor.

The other foreign films I saw at Sundance that also are set to play the SFIFF were all animated shorts that did not require subtitles: Madame Tutli-Putli from Canada and the Pearce Sisters and Yours Truly from the UK, which along with American Carson Mell's Chonto played a terrific Sundance shorts program that I reviewed here. As it features these four entires plus films by Kelly Sears, Stefan Mueller, Max Hattler and Aardman's Richard Goleszowski, I feel confident recommending the SFIFF shorts program the Human Kingdom. It plays tomorrow evening and Wednesday April 30th. I also enjoyed the Sundance screenings of a few short films playing on two other SFIFF shorts programs, for example the deservedly Oscar-nominated short documentary La Corona which plays the SFIFF as part of a program called the Feminine Mystique on April 28 and 29. Kelly Sears' the Drift and Leighton Pierce's Number One both play on Alternate Geographies; I intend to attend the program tomorrow, and I'll be glad to see them again, along with Bruce Conner's Cannes-bound Easter Morning, the highly-praised, much anticipated Observando El Cielo and more. That program plays again May 2nd.

Finally, a pair of American features I saw at Sundance will play SFIFF on the way to a wider release planned for this summer. Both films seem to brush up against the imaginary line between fiction and documentary, from either side of that electric fence. The fiction film, Ballast, uses non-professional actors all from the same Mississippi Delta region in which the film was shot, improvising dialogue to a predetermined scenario. The result is remarkably affecting and almost completely free from familiar character cliches. I spoke a bit more about the film with Robert Davis on his podcast here. The documentary, American Teen, in chronicling a year in the life of an Indiana high school, hand-picks four archetypal teenagers and follows them through their daily adventures, some of which seem quite possibly concocted by the teens just to add drama to their on-camera presence. I wrote a bit more about the film here.

Ballast and American Teen also provide an interesting case study for another issue that's been recently raised regarding the SF International Film Festival this year. The issue is that of digital projection vs. film projection, and has been extensively covered by Michael Guillen, who has provided a list of festival films expected to be screened using digital projection, gleaned from the Film On Film Foundation calendar; Guillen also interviewed Carl Martin from that group. The crux of the issue is that, for those of us who find something pleasurable, if perhaps somewhat ineffable, about the act of viewing a 35mm or 16mm film print, it's nice to know before we purchase a ticket to a screening and sit down to watch a film, whether the film we're about to watch is going to really be a physical film running though a mechanical projector, or else a digital projection. Likewise, those of us who are curious about the new frontiers of film distribution technology, and production technology with which it often though not always goes hand-in-hand, might like to know in advance what digital format a festival selection is being shown through as well.

Sundance, at least for the past two years, consistently marks the projection method, whether film or video, and what kind, in its program guide, but SFIFF does not. Thankfully, the Film On Film Foundation had the initiative to request that information from the festival, which was very helpful in agreeing to the request. The resulting list is pretty free of surprises; 1920's The Golem screened in a very nice-looking (if untinted) 35mm print for example, while Craig Baldwin's found-footage mash-up Mock Up On Mu will be shown digitally, as expected. It seems that most if not all of the films being projected digitally are the ones that were shot with digital cameras. I wrote about the way digital production and projection can open up a wider range of options for filmmakers and festival programmers in my SFIFF festival report three years ago (already a bit late to the issue). This year I feel confident saying that Ballast's pictoral virtues would be severely lessened if it were screened digitally instead of in 35mm, as is planned. Likewise, I can't imagine that American Teen could have been made as intimate as it is without the relatively unobtrusive presence of digital cameras. Everything has its place.

Wednesday, April 23


Wednesday Weeklies

David Hudson of GreenCine Daily has handily collected extracts from and links to each of the articles in the Guardian's consummate coverage of the 51st SF International Film Festival. But what of the other local free weekly papers? The South Bay's Metroactive doesn't appear to be covering the festival, which is understandable now that the festival has retreated from its Palo Alto screening venue. Over in Alameda County, now freed from the shackles/pursestrings (depending upon your perspective) of Village Voice Media, the East Bay Express has published a fine festival preview by Kelly Vance. And here in Frisco, the VVM-owned SF Weekly has, like the Guardian, made the SFIFF its cover story.

The SF Weekly's coverage of the festival this year is more extensive than it has been in recent years. After an intro by Meredith Brody, there's a nice q-and-a between two Frisco denizens, Michael Fox and Barry Jenkins, the director of Medicine For Melancholy. Jenkins' film is a must-see for fans of films in which our city's locations and indie-rock scene play lead character status (not to take anything away from the excellent performances by the actor leads Tracey Heggins and Wyatt Cenac). There's a piece on the festival's music-oriented offerings by local musician and writer Ezra Gale. And there's a good set of capsule reviews by Fox, Gale, and other local writers like Frako Loden and Gregg Rickman.

But it was a little weird to open the paper to see my local film festival also being covered by out-of-towners. Certainly, J. Hoberman's critical perspective is welcome on films like Alexander Sokurov's Alexandra and Jia Zhang-Ke's Still Life, even if the SF Weekly capsules are edited down from longer reviews published at the Village Voice. And Nathan Lee is another of my favorite critics, whom I feel strangely honored to share the same age bracket with (don't really know why I feel that way about him, but it's true.) But he was controversially sacked by VVM a few weeks ago. I guess that, since he'd written an article on Asia Argento before clearing out his desk, someone at the SF Weekly thought it would be great to let it serve double duty as the paper's coverage of her "two featured movies" at the SFIFF this year.

Except, it makes Lee look a little foolish to Frisco cinephiles who by now are aware that Argento has three movies in the festival, not two. This is not Lee's fault but his editor's, of course; the original piece on Argento was published in the Village Voice to coincide with the New York release of Boarding Gate, which has already come and gone from my local theatres (I missed it.) But the piece has been customized for Frisco newsracks to focus almost entirely on SFIFF opening night film the Last Mistress, though it also mentions the festival's midnight selection Go Go Tales as well. But strangely, all mention of another festival "Late Show" starring Asia Argento (and directed by her father Dario) the Mother of Tears, has been excised from the original article. I can only surmise that the costs of printing an extra paragraph or two are simply too high for the SF Weekly to justify given that paper's current situation (a situation I can't resist speculating might have had something to do with Lee's pink-slip in the first place - the timing seems too precise.)

I don't have a clue how VVM contracts work, so I can only presume that Lee will be getting a paycheck to have his chopped-up Argento piece republished even though he's no longer on staff. I'd be happy to have the opportunity to get my thumbs stained by the ink from his criticism every week. But nonetheless, it felt a little eerie to see his byline in a paper owned by his former employer, for a piece I'd encountered on the internet a month ago. Though, to be honest, I didn't read it back then- the convenience of free newspapers and my backlogged web reading list draw me to read the printed words of those writers whose work is available to me in both formats. I may rethink this policy when it comes to the SF Weekly from now on, though. I want to get the full version of a piece of Hoberman or Scott Foundas criticism, not an item abridged to leave room for Sucka Free City or Red Meat (to name but two of that paper's features I've long since become bored with) or to conform to press restrictions on word counts (which I generally don't mind as a writer, but once in the mode of reader will subvert any chance I get.)

Back to the SFIFF, one of the ticket stubs I'm most excited about having torn off by a smiley volunteer is the one for this Sunday's screening of In the City of Sylvia, alongside an on-stage conversation between Kent Jones and Hoberman. The latter critic is quite deservedly following in the footsteps of Manny Farber, Judy Stone, Naum Kleiman, Andrew Sarris, Jonas Mekas, Pauline Kael and Donald Richie as a recipient of the Mel Novikoff Award, which annually honors a critic (or a programmer, distributor, archivist, or institution) that has "enhanced the filmgoing public's knowledge and appreciation of world cinema." Hoberman is one of the remaining greats of a great era of newspaper film criticism, and I'm dying to hear what he's going to say about the state of criticism today.

But looking at this morning's SF Weekly was just another reminder of how much I value the internet in getting information and perspective about both the cinema scene worldwide, and about local film events and how they might connect to issues of particular concern to my friends and neighbors. Which is why I'm so grateful to my blogroll. Robert Davis has a terrific festival preview newly up on his site. Lincoln Specter and Tony An have been busy as well, and passholder Jason Weiner has revealed his tentative schedule. Michael Guillén has linked to sf360's rich coverage in a post at Twitch, though as of now, not yet to Dennis Harvey's piece on Asia Argento more tailored to Frisco readers. And on Guillén's own site, the Evening Class, he and Michael Hawley have provided a near-comprehensive view of the festival between them. Try here and here, just for starters.

Monday, April 21



I thought I could remain an elusive and shadowy figure, but you can never count on such things in the close-knit cinephile community here on Frisco Bay. If you ever wanted to know what an obsessed cinephile looks like, the photographic evidence of one, poring over the sacred tome that is the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival program guide like a scribe in a dimly-lit monastery, was recently identified by a site that will remain nameless. And I've decided that, since this cat's face is now out of the bag, I might as well put a better view up on my blogger profile.

Saturday, April 19


Mark Your Calendar: Silent Film Festival and More

I've left link hints in my previous two posts, but I'm not sure how many of my readers follow all the purple-font clickables in some of my more densely-packed entries (what say you, readers?). So I'd like to take a bit of time to point out some of what's going to be playing at the 13th Annual Silent Film Festival, to be held at the Castro Theatre this July 11th, 12th and 13th. As I did last year, I will be contributing an approximately 1200-word essay on one of the films to the festival program guide and developing a slide show presentation to be seen before the film begins. I've been attending biweekly meetings of the festival's Writers Group, where the essayists for each of the films compare research notes and drafts. So you could say I've been biased by hearing all sorts of fascinating things about each of the films in the program. But I was excited by all eleven feature films playing this year's edition from the moment they were revealed to the writers group a few weeks ago, and I honestly would have enjoyed researching and writing on any one of them.

But I'm thrilled that I'm getting to research what was my first choice from among the selections (picked by festival programmers Stephen Salmons and Stacey Wisnia.) The first Japanese feature ever to play at the festival, it's called Jujiro, or Crossways in English. It was directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa, perhaps best-known for his remarkable a Page of Madness made two years before Jujiro. I haven't seen the film I'm writing on myself yet, but I've been delving as deeply as I can into English-language sources on it, on Kinugasa, and on the context of silent-era filmmaking in Japan. Every day I feel more certain that I'm going to love seeing Jujiro projected in a reportedly astonishing 35mm print provided by the BFI at the Castro in a few months.

The weekend-long program will open Friday, July 11th with what happens to be my personal favorite Harold Lloyd film, the Kid Brother. Having seen it with organ accompaniment at the Stanford Theatre several years ago, I can attest that Lloyd's rural exploits in this film slay an audience in the mood to laugh. Another comedy showing during the weekend is one of the original flapper Colleen Moore's few surviving films, Her Wild Oat. I've only seen Moore in the talkie the Power and the Glory and interviewed in Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's "Hollywood" series of documentaries, but that's more than enough to make me eager to see her in a silent film.

I'm also eager to fill a few gaps in my knowledge of a pair of European auteurs, Carl Theodore Dreyer and Rene Clair. The Dreyer film being shown by the festival is his early gay-themed drama Michael, and the Clair film is his last silent Les Deux Timides, a comedy. Between Dreyer, Clair and Kinugasa, there's some very prestigious directing muscle behind this year's foreign film selections; there are actually other well-known directors on the program schedule besides those three, but if I'm going to finish this post before passing out tonight I'd better leave it at that for now.

Well, maybe just one more. Or two, really. Tod Browning is another favorite around these parts, and the festival is bringing him back this year along with his favored star Lon Chaney. The film is the Unknown, and it features Joan Crawford in one of her first film roles, possibly as young as 19 (various sources on Crawford reveal various birth years, the latest being 1908, hence the centennial tributes popping up this year.) It will be shown at a late Saturday night screening and, here's the kicker, introduced by Guy Maddin. Maddin has designated the film as his "Director's Pick," something new for the Silent Film Festival. Presumably, in future festivals other current-day directors will be invited to present a silent-era film they feel particularly fond of.

Of course, this will not be Maddin's first trip to Frisco in 2008. He's also expected at the 51st SF International Film Festival that opens this Thursday, attending the first two of the festival's screenings of his latest curiosity My Winnipeg on May 1 & 3. I've seen My Winnipeg and feel confident in assuring Guy Maddin fans that they will not be disappointed in this new film. Unless they have an unexplainable aversion to Ann Savage, who puts in a terrific performance re-enacting the part of Guy's mother. Or to shots of snow, in which case how could you be a Guy Maddin fan in the first place? My Winnipeg is also narrated by Maddin, and I've heard conflicting guesses from people who saw him narrate the film live in Toronto as to whether they expect him to repeat that performance for his SFIFF appearances.

In case you haven't noticed, I've segued out of talking about the Silent Film Festival and am on to other events. I'll try to be quick, getting down to only the bare essentials so I can go to sleep.

As I mentioned, the SF International Film Festival opens this Thursday and runs for two weeks. The (in part) festival-funded sf360 already has the most voluminous coverage from its crack team of writers. Once again I'd also like to point in the direction of Michael Hawley on the Evening Class, who anticipates attending a very similar selection of festival films to the schedule I hope to use. One film Michael leaves out, however, is Johnny To's Linger, which I'm thrilled to see programmed as I have as much interest in To's non-gangster films as I do in the Triad- and/or hitmen-themed films he's best known for. I'm at least as interested in To's thematic concerns and his mise-en-scene as I am interested in him as a genre interpreter.

Some may have wondered why Linger was picked for the SFIFF instead of the more-acclaimed Mad Detective, which appeared at the Venice Film Festival and others. Well, their chance to see Mad Detective comes with the release of the newest PFA calendar. It's not the most jam-packed calendar of the year, as the Berkeley venue will be closed for three weeks following its stint as a venue for the SFIFF, and will also not be running programs on Mondays or Tuesdays in June. But the calendar does include a 9-title series of To's action films, including Mad Detective, which I've not seen yet. Of the eight I have seen my favorite is the goofy Running on Karma. Throw Down is the one I most feel I should give a second chance to after not liking it as much as I'd hoped the first time around. I do wish a Hero Never Dies had been selected as well, as it's my very favorite To film.

Other newly-announced PFA programs include the entire Berlin Alexanderplatz in four parts May 30-June 7, an all-day marathon of Lynn Hershman Leeson video works June 1, a very welcome Joan Blondell series including the big-screen must-see Footlight Parade and John Cassavetes' Opening Night, and a pair of series devoted to filmmakers I've never heard of (any reader suggestions would be welcome): Austria's Axel Corti and Turkey's Zeki Demirkubuz. In conjunction with the BAM exhibition of Bruce Conner's Mabuhay Gardens photographs, there will be four guest-filled Thursday evenings of punk films culminating in a June 26 pairing of Penelope Spheeris' seminal Decline of Western Civilization (the first, best, original segment in the eventual trilogy) with Conner's influential Devo promo Mongoloid.

And before I finally sign off, I just want to pick out the very best of the latest calendars from Red Vic on Haight Street and the Rafael in Marin county. The Red Vic calendar, amidst its usual excellent mix of premieres and second-run "last chance before DVD" screenings, has a few repertory gems in its lineup this time around, most notably a June 10th screening of Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool, which I've never seen before, and a June 22-23 short stand of Max Ophuls's the Earrings of Madame de..., which I've only seen on VHS but love dearly. While the Rafael will be hosting a Jimmy Stewart retrospective Sunday and Wednesday evenings from May 18 through June 18. Having never seen the Shop Around the Corner on the big screen and the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance at all you can bet I've already started scheming ways to secure transportation to and from San Rafael on June 1 and June 18, respectively.

Friday, April 11


Now Museum

In my previous post on the Castro Theatre and its new direction I asked, "Is it possible that, with the fragmenting of niche cinema audiences, the existence of such a large repertory venue in town may actually be stunting the ability of smaller venues to develop interesting programming and interested audiences?" I don't know the full answer to that question, and I'd be curious to know what others connected to the local film scene think about it, but yesterday evening I got a partial answer, throwing into relief just how important cinema screens connected to established museums are to my life as a Frisco cinephile. Though a confluence of factors may make it difficult for a profit to be made on repertory even in the wealthy, culture-conscious cities here on Frisco Bay, we're very lucky to have a number of established non-profit organizations with the ability to help foster aesthetic and cross-cultural understanding using a variety of means, including the film projector.

My Thursday went as follows: I spent a productive afternoon inside the Berkeley Art Museum, doing research at the Pacific Film Archive Library for an essay I'm writing on Teinosuke Kinugasa's Jujiro for the 2008 SF Silent Film Festival program (more titles announced here). I had planned to stay in Berkeley to watch Nagisa Oshima's the Man Who Left His Will On Film at the PFA Theatre just down the street, screening as part of a diverse film series preparing for the 40th anniversary of May 1968. But when my dinner plans fell through I remembered that the Oshima film would soon be screening at another May 1968 tribute at SFMoMA, and that this would be the only night for me to catch an even rarer Japanese film at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the kickoff to a four-night stand of Nikkatsu Action pictures from the 1960s, none of which are available on DVD in this country. So after stopping at the box office to buy tickets to tonight's Frank Tashlin and Orson Welles screenings at the PFA Theatre (because you never know what might sell out there on a Friday night) I hopped back on BART to downtown Frisco.

A Colt is My Passport was terrific, among what was pretty close to a sell-out crowd itself. This being my first experience with a Nikkatsu Action film (which according to Mark Schilling's introductary remarks was not just a studio style but a genre all its own -- perhaps analogous to "Universal Horror" or "Shaw Brothers Wuxia") not directed by the notoriously iconoclastic Seijun Suzuki, I can't be sure if I was reacting to the specificities of the film itself, or to those of the genre conventions it exemplifies. But a sense that this was going to be a film not quite like any I'd seen before was evident from the very first few shots, a trio of establishing shots advancing so rapidly that it was impossible for them to establish location at all- only mood and pace. It felt like a parody of the spatial transitions of Yasujiro Ozu, though Michael Grost points out that Mikio Naruse, and perhaps other shomin-geki directors, used similar shots.

Anyway, it was off to the races as hitman Joe Shishido efficiently completes his latest assignment, picking off his victim during a tea ceremony (another assault on tradition?) and angering his employer's gang nearly as much as its rival in the aftermath. Now on the lam, our chipmunk-jowled protagonist spends most of the rest of the film wharfside, eluding would-be captors with a sidekick played by Jerry Fujio, all with delightful phoney-baloney Morricone musical themes (composed by Harumi Ibe) as underscore. Late in the film there's a scene which felt to me like an homage to the astonishing ending to Tomu Uchida's 1965 Fugitive From the Past, but with a superheroic twist that led to one of the finest final shootout scenes I've ever seen choreographed -- on an empty field so there's no structures to orient the camera against! Great stuff, and I'm seriously contemplating eating tonight's PFA tickets in favor of a return trip to YBCA- otherwise the only other entry in the Nikkatsu Action series I'll be able to make is Sunday night's Velvet Hustler, and even that's iffy.

Thanks to Kimberly of CINEBEATS for first alerting me to this series, and to sf360 contributor Jennifer Young for reminding me of it again at the last minute. But especially, thanks to Joel Shepard, film curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, for bringing Nikkatsu Action to Frisco Bay audiences. The YBCA screening room is entering an extremely fertile period over the next few months, actually. An April 16th co-presentation with kino21, AIASF and Goethe-Institut of Schindler's Houses is the only opportunity to see one of the films playing the PFA's Heinz Emigholz series on this side of the Bay. May 8-10 brings a new print of Sergei Paradjanov's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Phillipe Garrel's I Don't Hear the Guitar Anymore plays a double-bill with Andy Warhol's the Velvet Underground and Nico: a Symphony of Sound May 15-16, and Garrel's the Virgin's Bed plays the 18th. A "Witchcraft Weekend" May 23-25 includes four films running the gamut from Disney to Dreyer to the William S. Burroughs-narrated Haxan.

I'm especially excited about a pair of June programs at YBCA: two sets of Apichatpong Weerasethakul short films June 5-8, and from the 26th through 29th Jia Zhang-Ke's Dong and Useless, finally bringing Frisco audiences up to speed on this acclaimed Chinese auteur after the 51st SFIFF screenings of his Three Gorges Dam film Still Life and that film's planned Roxie run. It's worth noting that the SFIFF's other Three Gorges Dam feature, the documentary Up the Yangtze was, as of yesterday, the first and only festival film to see all of its screenings sell out- Frisco's got China on the brain right now, so who knows, might Jia's film be another particularly hot SFIFF ticket? Now's the time to read Michael Hawley's tremendous preview, determine which festival films you absolutely can't miss, and starting buying tickets, if you haven't already. Those rush lines for non-ticketholders can sometimes get pretty long.

UPDATE 4/13/08: I spoke to YBCA programmer Joel Shepard after the Velvet Hustler screening, and he informed me that he's changing the dates of the screenings I mentioned in the last paragraph, so that Dong and Useless will play June 5-8, and the Apichatpong weekend will be June 26-29. And now, back to the original post:

The Pacific Film Archive is, as usual, in the midst of an incredible calendar, one that I haven't done justice to on this site, preferring to let Ryland Walker Knight, Michael Guillén, and Rob Davis's weekly "Where I'll Be This Week" feature do the heavy lifting this time around. Featuring the fullest slate of great programs and probably the highest projection standards on Frisco Bay, The PFA is certainly the local film institution I'd most want to see spared in the event of a flying saucer attack, even if it is located way over in Berkeley (anyone know of any reasonably-priced apartments there?) An unusual function the venue performs for me is that it helps me select from among unfamiliar SFIFF titles each year. Even if I'm less likely to cross the Bay Bridge in late April and early May than at any other time of the cinematic year, I weigh a PFA date highly when selecting which films to make sure to see at the nearer major SFIFF venues the Castro, Kabuki and Clay. I know from experience that I'm more likely to appreciate the films that the SFIFF programmers guess will play best for PFA audiences.

There aren't many clues as to what the PFA will be bringing to its screen after the SFIFF screenings end May 8th, though I expect the full May-June program to be revealed in a week or two. One clue comes from the mentioning of the venue as a co-presenter of SFMoMA's screening of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's entire Berlin Alexanderplatz throughout the month of June. Presumably that means the PFA will be showing the 940-minute epic soon as well, which is very good news indeed. Not only does it indicate more opportunities to fit every last episode into a screening schedule, but the PFA stamp of approval gives me confidence in the presentation at SFMoMA as well. Don't get me wrong, I'm thrilled with the direction this Frisco museum has been going with its attempts to seriously program film. Last month my eyes melted in their sockets watching a gorgeous 35mm print of El Topo there, part of an imaginative Non-Western Westerns series. But I've heard that some other screenings in that series were sourced from DVD, so while I'm excited about seeing my first Glauber Rocha film, Antonio das Mortes, next week there, I'm remaining cautious about the experience. I know that 35mm prints of Yojimbo (April 26th) and, in next month's Around '68 series, Lindsay Anderson's If... and Phillipe Garrel's the Regular Lovers have been on the circuit recently. But then, I would have thought the same about For a Few Dollars More as well, and that one was shown on DVD. At least it was advertised as such in the program, a practice I heartily applaud. For more help discerning film from video presentations, I'm glad to have just found an informative calendar put together by the Film on Film Foundation. I hope they're able to keep this useful service up.

I'm brought back to the Man Who Left His Will On Film. When it plays SFMoMA on May 24th, will it be a digital or film screening? If not the latter, did I make a mistake in passing up a chance to see it on 35mm at the PFA last night? Probably not, as my chances of ever seeing a print of a Colt is My Passport again are probably next to nil. All I know is, it looks like I'll be too busy hopping from one museum screening room to another to even notice that the Castro is playing a film I'm not very likely to see. And that's a good thing.

Sunday, April 6


The Big Screen Jones

Last Sunday I learned something that surprised me. I was not only surprised, but also surprised at just how much I was surprised. I learned it while at work, and I almost immediately had to take a few minutes just to collect my thoughts. And it's taken me several days to be able to collect them into bloggable form. Anyway, enough with the prelude: what I heard is that the Castro Theatre is planning to show Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull from May 22nd until June 18th, the day before the opening of the Frameline festival.

With weeds growing on the site of the former Coronet, the traditional favorite place for the opening of a Lucasfilm production, the Castro has become Frisco's largest remaining single-screen theatre in operation. There's a lot of logic to this booking. A quick survey of friends who I know are eagerly anticipating this fourth installment of the popular series revealed that there's no place in town they'd rather watch the film on opening weekend than at the Castro, though none guessed that they'd actually get the chance to do so.

As exciting as this will undoubtedly be to a great many people, I must say that my initial reaction was not one of excitement and anticipation, but of anxiety. I pictured the Death Of Repertory in my city, which has for so long been a supportive home to revivals, retrospectives and just about all of that which makes up repertory film programming. It felt as if the other shoe of the 2004 Anita Monga firing furor, from which cinephile morale regarding the Castro was seemingly slowly, but surely, recovering, had finally been dropped. And somehow, despite various signs of warning, from meager attendance levels at bookings like the week-long run of Last Year At Marienbad to a widely read newspaper article, it was completely unexpected to me. The Chronicle article, written with that air of self-fulfilling prophecy that so many news articles on cultural trends often contain, and eloquently rebutted here, seemed to foretell changes at the Castro, but I would never have guessed them to include the booking of first-run would-be blockbusters. It appears I was lacking the imagination to envision the theatre as anything other than a "safe zone" from the latest and most-hyped Hollywood conglomerate-driven product.

After wallowing in pessimism -- an unverified rumor that left me in a funk for an entire evening -- I awoke to a more serene and open view on the matter. I realized that it's just a four-week booking, and an experiment of sorts. One that I'm about as curious as anyone to see the results of. The potential of the theatre to reach out to audiences that have never been inside its walls (how often it is that I'll mention the theatre to a fellow Frisco resident who has of course heard of it, but never attended) is exciting in that it could potentially even strengthen repertory in the long run.

The Castro is not only unique among Frisco theatres (in the ways I touched on here, and more) but also an aberration among the remaining theatres of its kind across the country- no other house its size is showing repertory and festival films for as many days out of the year as the Castro currently is. With a 1400-seat capacity, it's a bigger gorilla on the block than other cities with healthy repertory scenes, such as New York and Los Angeles, have to contend. Is it possible that, with the fragmenting of niche cinema audiences, the existence of such a large repertory venue in town may actually be stunting the ability of smaller venues to develop interesting programming and interested audiences?

I'm not sure I'm going to check out Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull at the Castro or anywhere else -- the upcoming popcorn movie I'm more intrigued by is actually Iron Man, which is scheduled to be one of the first films to play at Frank Lee's re-modeled, re-christened Marina Theatre when it re-opens its doors in May -- but I will spread the word to people excited about the Spielberg-directed film that the Castro is the place to see it.

In the meantime, I hope to take great advantage of the Castro repertory bookings between now and late May. There's a Joseph Losey double-bill on Wednesday, and on Saturday three reunion gigs for the Club Foot Orchestra, once a perennial attraction for its performances of scores to the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and other silents in that space. A 33-film tribute to United Artists for the studio's 90th anniversary opened last Thursday and runs intermittently through May 4th. As if to commemorate the life and death of Charlton Heston, May 6th and 7th will provide a chance to see the original Planet of the Apes in a brand-new 35mm print struck for the film's 40th anniversary. And May 9-15 will bring a week-long opportunity to see one of Jean-Luc Godard's greatest films, Contempt.

Even if the Castro management decides to go first-run on the strength of a successful Indiana Jones engagement, there are enough summer festival bookings that such a change doesn't seem likely to be immediate. In addition to Frameline (June 19-29), the Silent Film Festival (July 11-13, partial line-up found here) and the Jewish Film Festival (July 24-31) are going to be at the venue. And at Friday's MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS screening of John Carpenter's lo-fi sci-fi spoof Dark Star, Jesse Hawthorne Ficks announced a July 19 marathon of films in which animals attack humans, including Jaws, Phase IV, Alligator, and more.

Perhaps the film revival I'm most excited to see on the Castro screen in the next few months is John Stahl's Leave Her To Heaven, a so-called "technicolor noir" which has apparently been newly restored to its 1945 glory and is knocking film festival audiences dead. It's a film festival presentation here in Frisco, too, part of the six days that the 51st SF International Film Festival will be spending at the Castro during its two-week run here and in Berkeley April 24-May 8. Palo Alto has been cut out of the program, which I'm pleased about for purely selfish reasons- the result is more screenings of the films I want to see at the festival's Kabuki Theatre host venue, far more convenient to me than the Aquarius. South Bay residents will have to subsist on word that there will be a one-night SFIFF event in an unspecified South Bay location. If that doesn't do it for you, try the 2-down, 34-to-go Bette Davis centennial tribute running at the Stanford through June 6th. And of course there's always CalTrain.

Other SFIFF Castro screenings include, but are not limited to: Roy Andersson's You, the Living on April 25th shortly before Black Francis takes the stage to perform alongside the 1920 slice of German expressionism the Golem, the North American premiere of Jet Li in the Warlords on April 26 (right after Leave Her to Heaven) and the closing night film, Alex Gibney's latest documentary Gonzo: the Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, a screening which serves as a benefit for the Natural Resources Defense Council. That ought to put festival-goers in a partying mood on the last night of the SFIFF. The full SFIFF program was announced at a press conference last Tuesday, and I'll be pointing to more films I've seen or am excited about in the upcoming days. In the meantime, sf360 has an initial preview piece up.

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