Thursday, November 30


Tip Jar

I've gotten a few interesting tips on upcoming Frisco screenings over e-mail in the past few days. Thanks very much to those who sent them in (you know who you are).

The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts has its January-February calendar up. 2007 revs up starting January 12-13 with a grouping of four Kenneth Anger films including Fireworks and Kustom Kar Kommandos, alongside Jean Genet's sole foray into film directing, Un Chant d'Amour, all in 35mm prints. On January 18-20 the New York City-based traveling film festival known as CineKink makes a return trip to the venue. And February brings three teen films from early-eighties Japan: Sailor Suit and Machine Gun on the 8th, Typhoon Club on the 15th, and Exchange Students on the 17th. Finally, on February 22nd Jem Cohen's film on The Ex and political protest Building a Broken Mousetrap screens.

On the subject of politically-charged films, the Victoria Theatre will be hosting the CounterCorp Anti-Corporate Film Festival December 1-3. Films screened include the Future of Food and the Corporation but it's not all documentaries: the Hindi drama Bhopal Express and the horror comedy Severance also will be shown. Another tip reveals that the third touring version of Mike Judge's and Don Hertzfeldt's The Animation Show collection of cinematic animated shorts will stop at the Castro Theatre January 25th.

Currently I'm immersing myself in that theatre's four-film Hiroshi Teshigahara retrospective, where cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa's astounding 4:3 compositions have predictably looked better than I've ever seen them before. The series, which closes tonight in that conjunction of architecture, music and visual poetry that is Antonio Gaudí, is the heart of what I'm thinking of as an unofficial "Toru Takemitsu week" on Frisco Bay. This composer, one of my very favorites of the 20th-Century (film or otherwise), had close and career-long collaborations with both Teshigahara and, starting with 1962's Harakiri, with another great director Masaki Kobayashi. Kobayashi's ghost-story collection Kwaidan played at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley last Sunday. With Samurai Rebellion playing there tomorrow and Harakiri on Sunday December 3rd, that makes seven prints of Takemitsu-scored films screened in an eight-day period here. All seven are supplied by Janus Films, and the fact that the Castro decided to spice its winter calendar of Hollywood classics and neo-classics with Janus titles like the Teshigaharas, the Flowers of St. Francis (coming Dec. 13) and Black Orpheus (Jan. 2-4) has gotten me optimistic for a while now that the Castro might pick up the ball dropped by the Balboa and become the venue for the big touring Janus Films series for Frisco proper.

Well, I'm happy to report that I've just started hearing whispers that in fact the Castro will bring a week of double-bills from that series in February. The selections in the series are expected to have some overlap with the Janus films playing across the bridge in Berkeley right now (if, like me, you missed the PFA's screening of Death of a Cyclist and Knife in the Water earlier this month, rumor has it that we'll get second chances), but should also include other titles in the tour (Spirit of the Beehive has been mentioned, and I'm crossing my fingers for the Phantom Carriage, Viridiana and the Lady Vanishes among others). This news doesn't make me want to cancel any of my plans to visit the PFA (where, incidentally, another whisperer has located a Roberto Rossellini tribute series sometime next year) in December, but it's heartening to think there will be another shot at some of these films in a few months.

The question needs to be asked:

When did the Balboa turn into another crappy Landmark wannabee? As recently as the beginning of this year, they were still doing retrospectives. Now, they're playing The Queen and similar Weinstein-esque Merchant Ivory stuff.
Now now. I think Gary Meyer has anguished long and hard about changing the programming and he wouldn't have had to if his original programming had been supported, which it wasn't. That's the bottom line, plain and simple. He was putting a lot of effort into programs where only a few people would show up. As someone who has programmed cultural events myself, nothing is more frustrating. At least this way he gets audiences and can keep the Balboa alive. If anyone's to be chastized, it's not Gary Meyer, it's not the Balboa, it's the audiences that don't come to creative, original programming. On the other hand, as any realtor will add: location, location, location. The Balboa's inaccessbility makes less mainstream fare less attractive. I think Gary did the right thing. Perhaps not what I would have wished. But I'm as guilty as anyone else for not always supporting events at the Balboa, despite my best intentions.

Brian, all these RUMORS!! Rumors rumors on top of rumors. You're such a gossip mongerer. Heh.
I wouldn't put all the blame on audiences, Michael. I would also point to: newspapers and other media giving superficial or no coverage to many of the theatre's most interesting programming selections; the increasing rental fees rightsholders and archives charge to allow a print to be screened commercially; the corporate commodity-driven DVD culture training people to prefer so-called "perfect" digital presentaion in their living rooms over the beauty of watching celluloid images amplified on a screen by a beam of light; heck even MUNI for not providing reliable nighttime service to and from the Outer Richmond district.

The question starts to become, how did the theatre keep its calendered programming going for so long (January 2005-June 2006)? Also, this is just speculation, but I'd bet that Gary Meyer's newly increased responsibilites at the Telluride Film Festival are keeping him too busy to take the kind of care that booking a real cinephile-friendly theatre year-round takes.

As someone who lives less than a mile from 37th and Balboa, I'm as disappointed in the development as anyone (especially since for the most part the current programming is piquing my interest less than what was booked in the pre-calendar years 2001-2004.) But I also have to notice that both Roxie and Castro programming has, at least from my perspective, improved in the period since the Balboa abandoned calandered booking. That's got to make folks living in central Frisco happy. A consolation prize for those of us in the avenues is that the Four Star is going to open Train Man (aka Densha Otoko) December 15th.
I'd like to simply accept that explanation, but I've experienced too many sell-outs or near sell-out showings at the PFA, Castro, Roxie, etc for far more obscure material to make that explanation fully believable. The PFA nearly sold out for a programme last week of Beat experimental shorts, most of which I'd never even heard of myself.

It's true, of course, that the PFA has quite cheap tickets for students and has a built-in audience, in addition to being much better located. But there was no lack of support for avante-garde work vastly more obscure and challenging than the overwhelming majority of anything Balboa showed. YBCA/Canyon's programme of Bruce Baillie did sell out (the YBCA theater is very small, admittedly) as do a lot of other YBCA showings, most of which are very very very far out of the mainstream.

The Balboa's location is bad - no, it's horrible. I'm much more willing to point to that as the primary factor.
I hate speaking for other people, but I know I never meant to imply that audiences for challenging fare don't exist in this city. I suspect Michael didn't mean this either.

In a highbrow-rich town like Frisco, I'd argue the most obscure and avant-garde films are in a strange way much safer programming choices than the kind of stuff the Balboa was losing money on. For one, not many avant-garde films are available on DVD. For two, even when they are, it's much easier to convince the majority of people who want to see them that film projection is the only way to REALLY see them. I personally think it's a fallacy to assume that watching a hilarious pre-code farce like, say, Frank Tuttle's This is the Night on your television set (were it possible, that is; that one is not on DVD or VHS to my knowledge, just like many of the selections Gary made) is any less untrue to the intentions of the filmmaker and the properties of the medium than watching Bruce Conner or Baillie films that way is. But that seems to be a common perception.

Another crucial distinction between the PFA and YBCA (and Rafael, Stanford, now Roxie) and the Balboa is that the latter is a for-profit enterprise. It's no Mark Cuban-style investment, but still: if a screening loses money, there are no membership fees or charitable grants to help make up the difference.

But I think it's fair to assume that there is definitely an audience here not only for the kinds of films that fulfill the mission statements of non-profits like the PFA, YBCA and SF Cinematheque (which, incidentally, has just announced a restructuring of its curatorial process. Irina Leimbacher will no longer be Artistic Director; in fact that position will no longer exist) but also for mass-entertainments that have grown obscure over time. Witness the success of the silent Chicago which packed the Castro last night. So why didn't these audiences regularly flock to Balboa programs? Yes, location has got to be a big factor. The demographic makeup of various neighborhoods makes the Richmond District an unlikely place for a dense concentration of dedicated film buffs to live. There were a few neighborhood regulars I often spotted at screenings there, but even I wasn't quite as regular as I wanted to be. A great many of the cinephiles and filmmakers I'm acquainted with do not have cars, so the comparatively ample parking around the Balboa is of no use to them.

Another factor that I don't think can be underrated is presentation. The "DVD revolution" has educated mass audiences about things that only hardcore cinephiles knew about before: aspect ratios, film restoration, etc. Sometimes this new appreciation for "digitally perfect", pocket-sized, movies has made audiences less able to overlook flaws they'd have been perfectly willing to accept before. For example, I recently attended a screening of what I thought was a mostly-gorgeous print of Manhattan at the Red Vic. I'd actually never seen the film before and I was swept completely into the narrative and the beauty of the compositions (has Woody Allen ever made a better film than this?) The friends I attended with had seen the film before on video/DVD, and they said they'd enjoyed getting to see it on a big screen, but had been disappointed with the quality of the print. It was the last thing I expected to hear out of these definitely non-cinemaniacs' mouths. But I couldn't contradict them either. Now that they mentioned it, yes, I guess there had been some scratches and dirt on the print here and there, and one reel had something of an "overexposed" look to it.

Anyway, institutions like the PFA, Stanford, Silent Film Festival, etc. predate the popularity of DVD and long before that secured a strong reputation for getting the best possible prints and giving them the best possible presentation. Frisco film buffs have come to trust them and forgive them the occassional mistake or stroke of bad luck. The Balboa never really seemed to be able to engender such a high level of trust. Trust in programming selections, yes absolutely. But in presentation, not quite so much. Seeing Samurai Rebellion in glorious Tohoscope at the PFA the other night had me thinking again about how certain theatres are naturally suited to certain aspect ratios. The Castro was built to show 1.33:1 films and it does so beautifully, as I noted in this post (though they've shown widescreen films very handsomely as well). The current location of the PFA, with its low ceiling, however, seems most natural when showing 2.35:1 films (though they're close to impeccable in presenting films of all ratios). When the Balboa showed Harakiri a year ago the 2.35:1 ratio was not completely honored. It was close, but the edges of the frame didn't quite fit onto the screen. I don't feel it hampered my experience of the film, but I bet some people were bothered by it.

Presumably it's quite expensive to upgrade a projection booth/screen set-up so that it can comfortably handle as diverse an array of aspect ratios as the PFA and the Yerba Buena Center do. In lieu of such an expendeture, perhaps it's for the best that the Balboa stick mostly to playing the kinds of current releases that fit best on their screen. Though for my part as someone not often terribly annoyed by presentation gaffes, I have to say I don't exactly agree.

But mostly I'm happy to see the theatre continuing to bring the big-screen experience to my neighborhood. There aren't many neighborhood theatres left in town, so I'm not too dismayed to see one of the few remaining programmed with the neighborhood in mind.
The list of the Castro's Janus selections February 16-22 is not up at this site. My hopes for the Sjostrom, Bunuel and Hitchcock did not manifest, but I totally don't mind when Renoir, Kurosawa and a double dose of Ichikawa are on the docket. There's not a one on the list I wouldn't like to see on the big screen (if only, as in the case of the Bergman film, to re-evaluate something I'd never connected to before).
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