Monday, May 15


Century Deprivation

In my ongoing quest to understand motion pictures at their most fundamental level, I find I have an almost insatiable appetite for films from earlier eras. It wasn't always so; I used to be so overwhelmed by my lack of familiarity with classical cinema canon that I fled into an obsessive interest in only the newest releases. It was only a little over five years ago that I started a project of trying to semi-systematically familiarize myself with the films and filmmakers of yesteryear. I'm still working on that project, I guess, though its systematic nature has gradually dissipated; now I follow my interests more than I do lists like this one.

As a celluloid...if not purist let's say proponent, I also take my cues from the cornucopia of repertory programming found in Frisco theatres. And film festivals have been a crucial component of that feast. The SFIFF in particular has helped me fill many crucial gaps in my cinema history self-education, especially through its awards presentations. Seeing the complete Magick Lantern Cycle at the Castro when Kenneth Anger was given the Persistance of Vision Award in 2001, or Come to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean when Robert Altman got the festival's Directing Award in 2003 were among the highlights. So, as excited as I was for an opportunity to view Directing Award recipient Werner Herzog's latest film the Wild Blue Yonder at this year's festival, I was disappointed to learn that no prints of the films that Herzog's reputation was made and sustained by would show as part of the festival (while, as I learned of via Greencine Daily, the recent Sarasota Film Festival was able to mount an envy-inducing series just a few weeks earlier). My disappointment was slightly tempered at the event itself by several factors: festival director Graham Leggat's reminder in his introduction that many of the rarer entries in his filmography are now packaged in a DVD box set available for order on Herzog's own website, Herzog's on-stage admission that good prints of many of his films have not been properly preserved (which brought on a note-to-self reminder to follow up on this problem with Eastman House), and the stunning beauty of the images in the Wild Blue Yonder, which should be enough to tide me over for a little while.

It's clear that the festival's Directing Award, which counted the "esoteric" and "unpronounceable" (Ruthe Stein's words, not mine) likes of Im Kwon-Taek and Manoel de Oliveira among its recipients back in the days when it was called the Akira Kurosawa award, now plays a role in the film society's prestige among the general public that precludes it from being bestowed upon directors well-known in this country only among hardcore cinephiles. That said, Herzog is one of the true iconoclasts among famous directors working today, and therefore a perfect choice for the award. But it's worth noting that his filmography is laden with at least as many great documentaries as fiction films, even if he famously likes to downplay the difference between these two categories, and did so again when interviewed before the screening, claiming "It's all movies for me." With his documentary, short film and television credentials, Herzog could instead have snugly received the festival's Persistance of Vision Award, which annually honors the career of a filmmaker for working outside the "feature film" sphere. The actual recipient of the award this year was Guy Maddin, another figure whose work fits both inside and outside that sphere. His most widely-seen film is almost certainly the Saddest Music in the World starring Isabella Rossellini but he also has made films for television (Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary) and a good deal of short films, several of which were interspersed with a live interview between Maddin and Steve Seid of the Pacific Film Archive.

The interview demonstrated Maddin to be an incredibly funny and down-to-earth guy, the complete opposite from the über-pretentious aesthete you might think would be the type to name one of his films Odilon Redon or the Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity. I was thrilled to see Maddin's newest film, My Dad is 100 Years Old and doubly thrilled to finally see The Heart of the World, which I had so ruefully missed when it played the 2001 SFIFF, projected onto the Kabuki Theatre's grandest screen (I certainly hope House 1 is not seriously overhauled in the remodel being undertaken by the theatre's new owner.) The Heart of the World equals the visual and narrative complexity of all but the most Byzantinely-plotted feature films, but it packs all its images into the space of six minutes, which is why it just might be the most entertainingly rewatchable short film ever. Well, at least since Tex Avery. It helps that, like Artur Pelechian's equally exhilarating The Beginning and the introduction to Soviet television's news program, Maddin's film is driven by Georgy Sviridov's pulsating and instantly memorable music from the 1965 Mosfilm release Time, Forward! Part of me would have liked to hear Maddin talk more about making The Heart of the World and other shorts (the same part of me that wished the Maddin essay in the festival program didn't focus so much on feature films, considering the POV Award is supposedly for everything but), though my more practical side was too giddy over the subjects he did talk about (like this, for example) to care at all.

I do feel a bit like I'm needlessly nitpicking by trying to demonstrate that Herzog and Maddin could easily have switched awards, if not for the fact that Herzog has the greater and wider reputation. I just think it's worth pointing out that in the past few years the festival has really had two awards for directors: one for big-names and one for lesser-knowns who, like most filmmakers, happen to have some shorts, documentaries, animation, and/or TV work under their belts. I don't mind as long as both choices are good ones; "it's all movies for me." And this year was nothing like 2002, where it was clear to any discerning cinephile that the director of greater stature if not international fame (Fernando Birri) was receiving the "less prestigious" award while a director of three and a half films (not to disparage the quality of Bulworth, which I really like) got the bigger-billed one. I've long since wondered if it was more than coincidence that it was after that year that the Kurosawa estate wanted the name of the award back.

I missed the big events for Peter J. Owens Award recipient Ed Harris and Kanbar Award recipient Jean-Claude Carrière, the latter especially to my great regret. But the festival made what I thought were very appropriate selections of screenings to accompany the q-and-a sessions: a Flash of Green for Harris and Belle De Jour for Carrière. A Flash of Green is one of two films I've seen by Floridian director Victor Nunez, and like Ulee's Gold, which helped Peter Fonda grab a Golden Globe award, it's a showcase for a lead actor, in this case Harris, to construct a character of uncommon richness for a two-hour movie. As such it's a good choice to accompany presentation of an acting award, even if as a film it isn't quite as tightly-structured as Ulee's Gold is. And though I've seen too small a sample of Jean-Claude Carrière's career to feel confident in calling Belle De Jour his crowning achievement (rivaled in my mind only by the Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), it is a self-reflexive masterpiece of cinematic illogic. It's also the only Carrière-Buñuel collaboration withheld from a brief series that played the Castro during the last few months of Anita Monga's stewardship of that theatre in 2004, and was therefore was ripe for a Frisco theatrical viewing.

The Mel Novikoff Award "for enhancing the public's awareness and enjoyment of film" that Monga recieved at the 2005 edition of the festival was not given out at this year's edition. I thought this was a bit of a shame, not only because I support the spirit of an award given to film programmers, preservationists, critics, and other people in the film community besides the filmmakers awarded by so many other groups, but also for the purely selfish reason that the award has traditionally provided an opportunity to see some of the most intriguing and hard-to-find films the festival has screened in the past few years. The collection of silent shorts Paolo Cherchi Usai picked out in 2004 (which I caught, and which turned me into a Charley Bowers fan), or the mini-retro for Jacques Rozier brought by Cahiers du Cinéma when it was awarded in 2001 (which I missed, and which hasn't made a return visit to the area) are just a few examples.

Instead, Monga was offered a carte blanche programming selection by the SFIFF. She decided to bring a print of Hal Roach's 1940 gender-bender comedy Turnabout, a glimpse of the UCLA Film and Television Archive's biennial festival of preservation happening in Los Angeles this July and August. This festival sounds well worth a road trip, especially since I unfortunately missed both screenings of Turnabout, one due to my work schedule and the other because I felt compelled to see the Alloy Orchestra's second-ever public performance of a newly-composed score to the 1925 Rudolph Valentino vehicle, The Eagle. Directed by Clarence Brown (one of Andrew Sarris's "subjects for further research"), The Eagle rarely seemed better than average on its own merits, but it's the kind of film that really plays to the Alloys' strongest points: propelling the excitement of action sequences and modernizing melodrama that with a more traditional score might seem unbearable to unaccustomed audiences. The group also performed at a matinee screening of three short films: Buster Keaton's One Week, Fatty Arbuckle's Back Stage, and Jane Gillooly's modern silent Dragonflies, the Baby Cries.

A totally different kind of pairing of live musicians with an underscreened film classic occurred a few days later when Deerhoof took on Harry Smith's 1962 epic of iconography, Heaven and Earth Magic. The SFIFF has made a tradition of bringing some of this century's best American indie rockers together with some of the last century's most eye-popping films since the cusp of the two centuries in 2000, when Tom Verlaine performed in front of a set of surrealist shorts. I've always appreciated the interpretations the musicians have come up with, sometimes very much so, though the purist in me feels that they're often not the best way for someone to be introduced to the films. This time around I was particularly skeptical because Heaven and Earth Magic is not a silent work; it has a soundtrack of library sound effects put together musique concrète-style. On the other hand I knew that the huge Castro screen would display Smith's visuals better than I could possibly hope to see them again, barring re-discovery of the original color version now lost, and when I finally started paying attention to friends who'd been touting Deerhoof to me for years and listened to some of their albums in anticipation of the event, I grew more optimistic.

I was not disappointed. Deerhoof resisted any temptation they might have had to utilize their ability to rock out and overwhelm Smith's images. Instead they used their instruments, as well as the Castro's Wurlitzer organ that they had to obtain extra-special permission to incorporate, as if they encompassed a gigantic library of sound effects as eerie and off-kilter as the wolf howls and thunder cracks employed by Smith in his original sound track. Sure, they put together a mean rhythm for a section here and a section there, the most memorable being during a scene of whirring gears and orbs toward the end of the film. But they always seemed conscious of the delicate pacing of Smith's animation. When the nourishing meal of Heaven and Earth Magic was finished, the band moved on to provide its fans in the audience with the dessert many of them had been craving: several of Smith's Early Abstractions played on the screen, but instead of the Meet the Beatles! soundtrack long associated with the films, Deerhoof played and sang four songs from its latest album The Runners Four (plus "Flower" from Apple O') and it was a lot of fun. Clearly, the band took care to match each film with the right song. For example, what I think might have been Abstraction No. 4, a film of "black and white abstractions of dots and grillworks" was accompanied by the song "Spy On You", which lent an air of paranoia to the the searching and probing motion of light that makes up the film. I enjoyed these added meanings introduced by the Deerhoof lyrics, though I also am mindful of what Jonas Mekas in his Movie Journal has to say regarding audience reaction to the soundtrack that, as legend has it, he was the one to add to Smith's films:
What this is, it's again the dear, dear ego, not being able to give yourself to anything on that screen unless it's you there on that silver screen, with all the Beatles songs you like so much and everything else you know so well. But to go into unknown territory...and through all that silence...uh, that can be dangerous.
Though I'm hopeful that the SFIFF will decide for next year's historic 50th anniversary to reverse the trend of decreasing revival selections, I'm also thankful that I got to see what I did this year. But truly, my appetite to rediscover classic films amidst the hubbub of a festival setting has only barely been staved off. Which is why I'm so excited about returning to the Castro for the next Silent Film Festival. The schedule has just been fully announced. For a director-centric film lover like me, this 11th year of the festival looks like it might be the best yet. It includes the first Silent Film Fest appearances by great auteurs from John Ford (the 1917 Western Bucking Broadway, introduced by Ford biographer Joseph McBride and Ford actor Harry Carey, Jr. July 15) to G.W. Pabst (a new Louise Brooks centenary print of Pandora's Box, July 15) to Boris Barnet (The Girl With The Hatbox starring the gorgeous half-Ukranian, half-Swedish actress Anna Sten, July 16) to Leo McCarey (three of his Laurel and Hardy two-reelers play July 16.) Frenchman Julien Duvivier's reputation has still yet to bounce back from the hit taken when the nouvelle vague lumped him in with the Tradition-of-Quality filmmakers they liked to sneer at; might Au Bonheur Des Dames (July 15) help kickstart renewed interest in the director? And though I already knew four of the titles selected for the festival, I'm freshly excited about them all over again now that I've learned who's been entrusted with the musical accompaniment: Clark Wilson on organ for the July 14 opening night film Seventh Heaven, Michael Mortilla on piano for the July 15 Sparrows, Jon Mirsalis on piano for July 16th's The Unholy Three, and last but most assuredly not least Dennis James at the organ for the closing film Show People July16.

I also found out the schedule for the Bronco Billy silent film festival happening a few weekends beforehand, June 23-25 at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum across the bay in Fremont. Programs devoted to Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin and Harold Lloyd jumped out on a brief initial glance.

If you have the opportunity, I recommend Nunez' Ruby in Paradise with Ashley Judd.
Yeah, I've heard various sources call it his best film.
Ruthe Stein writes something risible about the festival every year. When she said the festival's days of "paying homage to esoteric directors with unpronounceable names" were over, I wondered who among the previous winners has a name that's difficult for this largely Asian town to pronounce. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, perhaps?

I know what you mean about trying to become more familiar with early films. I recently had the idea of spending a year watching only (or mostly) films from the '20s. It's a particularly rich period in film history, and, except for American film, I've only grazed the surface. I haven't had the guts to do it, though, and it wouldn't exactly be an act of self-preservation for someone who reviews movies. But it sure would be fun. My film education is very spotty and unsystematic, but that may be fairly typical. Until recently, access to film was so limited that many of us were forced to live with slim pickins. Or go to film school. I remember Elvis Mitchell (I think)arguing in the NYT that film school is no longer necessary since access to arcana was its main draw. That's probably overstating the case, but blogs and DVDs are teaching film classes around the clock. The curricula is a bit out of shape, but it's free and ubiquitous.

Add to that everything available in cities like SF and the limiting factor is no longer "access," it's the merciless clock.

By the way, I misspelled Bertolucci in a previous comment on your blog. I'll take this opportunity to point that out. Those damn foreign names.
I have a theory that SF-based film bloggers are actually inexhaustible cyborgs. I don't know how you do it all, Brian ... !
Great post, even if I did to go lay down in a dark room with a cold cloth on my forehead, thinking I will never see all the films I need to. And I am frenzied with jealousy over the silent film festival. I am quietly trying to see more and more silent film, but I find that it loses even more on a TV set than other films do.
Campaspe, I couldn't agree more with your take on small-screen silent films, though I'm not precisely sure why it's so. I almost never watch feature-length silent films at home anymore. Which is one reason why, if I had to limit myself to watching films from a single decade for a year like Rob entertains, I'd probably pick the 1930s. Another reason is that there simply aren't enough films from Asia that have survived from decades earlier than that. At least there's a few more traceable Japanese and Chinese films from the 30s. And I'd love to really delve into Soviet, French, British, and other European cinemas from that decade. And of course the Hollywood of the Otis Ferguson era.

Zach, writing this post indeed left me pretty exhausted, and I've only now recovered. I don't know how I do it either.
But thank you for doing so!!! What an incredible fountain of information and opinion; I'm really in awe!

There's so much meat there I hardly know where to begin chewing. But for starters, will say that when Kenneth Anger showed up at the Castro to be honored, I was thrilled that he then came off the stage and sat down right next to me!! I'm such a consummate Stagedoor Johnny that I just happened to have a hardbound first edition first printing of Hollywood Babylon II, which he graciously autographed for me. I understand he will likewise be honored at the upcoming film preservation festival in L.A.
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