Sunday, September 18


Pulling out all the stops at the Castro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I definitely agree with your comment about the lack of political edge to programming nowadays. Increasingly, I find that I'm going to two kinds of programming, one to get the public's attention, and another for "niche filmmaking" which is where all the political ones seem to end up. Even NYC's Walter Reade is no exception, with their very popular Rendez-vous with French Cinema series increasingly becoming a venue for fluff and blockbusters, while more challenging films end up elsewhere...usually on odd matinee times.
Interesting; my point was meant to be a strictly local one about the Castro Theatre, and I didn't consider it might fit into a larger trend.

If it is a trend, as your East Coast perspective helps suggest it may be, I wonder how much of it is driven by audiences rejecting politically-edged films, and how much of it by the personal predilicitons of the gatekeepers in the exhibition business.

I also wonder if the loss of the Castro as a venue for certain kinds of films has a big effect on national release patterns for those films, given that the Castro is (as I understand it) the largest full-time rep. house in the country, in the second- or third-largest repertory market in the country.
Good point about film release patterns. Lincoln Center always used to march to the beat of its own drum, but even that has slowly been catering towards some level of mainstreaming by screening films that are opening in NY soon after. I always figured that it was to keep the blue bloods happy by getting to rub elbows with stars during official premieres and getting the "I saw it first" bragging rights, since they're essentially the major patrons and not the errant public who will occasionally stumble into Walter Reade. For instance, I definitely see a very different audience for Human Rights Watch than I do for the French Cinema series, and more often than not, there's little cross-pollination between the two (even though both are well attended). I'm not sure why that is, but in that sense, it's not so much a function of gatekeeping as it is a kind of prejudice that political films can't also be artful.
Well, last night I was reminded that perhaps its not such a bad thing for the Castro to slow down its bookings of overtly political films; I went to see the affecting documentary Winter Soldier at the Roxie Theatre, which needs all the customers it can get. It has already established a reputation as a venue for politically-minded cinema, and with its nearest competitor, the Castro, no longer a major magnet for political films, perhaps its smaller neighbor will have a better chance to flourish.
Hey Brian, are you a fellow Borzage nut (like me)? I recently picked up his Moonrise on VHS, it's a beaut. I've never seen Man's Castle but have always wanted to.
I'm not a nut yet, but I'm interested in becoming one. Just haven't seen enough of his films yet. Moonrise is going to be playing the Film Noir Fest in January. Hopefully I'll see it then.
Man's Castle is fantastic. I hope to see you there. There has not been a Borzage Retro in the bay area in many many years... at least since 1999 when I first heard the name. So far Ive seen about 5-6 and love 4-5 of them.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?