Monday, February 19


2006: a year of movies in Frisco

Last week, the latest issue of Senses of Cinema came out along with my humble contribution to its annual year-end World Poll, but I was too busy obsessing over the SFIAAFF and my Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Blog-a-Thon to mention it. I know mid-February is pretty late in the blog-list game, but I figure I still beat the Oscars and only barely missed Chinese New Year, so it's alright.

Two things to mention: one, I made the list on December 31st, 2006, and since then have seen a few films that most likely would have shifted things around somewhat had I seen them before then, most notably Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, which really stunned me. It's still playing at several local multiplexes, as well as at the Balboa, and it really deserves to be seen in a theatre.

The other thing to mention is that I kept my entry to new (new to Frisco, anyway) releases from last year. But I've been meaning to post my wrap-up of the local repertory scene for a while now. It was quite a year for moviegoing for me; it may turn out to be my peak (already, though I've seen a fair number of films in 2007, my pace is well behind last year's). It was hard enough sorting everything into only three lists last time around. This time I couldn't bear to divide to less than eight. Here goes...

Might as well start with a short subject. A delightful trend I hope to see more of: 35mm classic cartoons before the feature. Five, in order of delight:

1. Tex Avery's a Wild Hare before Love Finds Andy Hardy at the Stanford.
2. Friz Freleng's Bugs Bunny Rides Again before the Sting at the Paramount.
3. Robert McKimson's Gorilla My Dreams before King Kong at the Castro.
4. Cordell Barker's the Cat Came Back before For Your Consideration at the Balboa.
5. Friz Freleng's Lights Fantastic before the Wizard of Oz at the Paramount. I thought it was strange to select a rather racy, text-heavy cartoon for an audience with so many young children in it, but I was happy to see it on the Paramount screen all the same.

Frisco's thriving music and cinema scenes converge when live music is performed alongside a film print. Here are five films that were turned by their accompanying performers into once-in-a-lifetime experiences:

1. Clark Wilson's accompaniment of Pandora's Box for the Silent Film Festival (which was filled with other wonderful musical performances as well) ranks among the greatest scores I've heard played at the Castro's Wurlitzer organ. His score was highly melodic, witty, and appropriately grotesque, with a haunting carol as a very creepy touch at the end of the film.
2. I was nervous about the idea of deerhoof replacing the sound design of Harry Smith's Heaven and Earth Magic with a completely original, modern score, but it really worked. The replacement of the usual Meet the Beatles! soundtrack with their indie rock hits for Smith's Early Abstractions afterward was gravy. At the Castro, thanks to the SFIFF.
3. Dennis James played the Stanford's Mighty Wurlitzer for a summertime screening of Erich Von Stroheim's the Merry Widow on a "Spare the Air" free transit day, and it felt like the quintessential silent movie by the quintessential silent movie director played by a very essential organist.
4. Hearing the Phillip Glass Ensemble perform the score to Powwaqatsi live at Davies Symphony Hall has probably spoiled me from ever seeing the film any other way. I only wish I could have attended each night of the trilogy.
5. Judith Rosenberg's score for Not Blood Relations elevated what was probably the weakest of the films I saw in the Pacific Film Archive's Mikio Naruse retrospective into a very enjoyable experience.

If they're not run properly guest appearances at film screenings can grow a bit tiresome. But having a good speaker with a strong connection to the material being screened can often deeply illuminate the cinema experience. Here are five that fit that bill:

1. John Canemaker gave an incredibly well-prepared, insightful, information-packed presentation of several Winsor McCay animations, including a charming recreation of the vaudevillian spirit of Gertie the Dinosaur at the Pacific Film Archive (PFA). If the speaker is good enough, you never get tired of hearing him talk.
2. Guy Maddin, interviewed at the Kabuki as he was honored with the SFIFF's Persistence of Vision award, was full of anecdotes and perspectives perhaps even more bizarre and entertaining than many of his films, though I know that would be hard to believe if you hadn't been there.
3. Farley Granger dazzled the audience with his charisma and wit while being interviewed by the Noir City 4 film festival's Eddie Muller between screenings of his Strangers on a Train and They Live By Night at the Palace of Fine Arts.
4. Sara Karloff shared stories from growing up in a Hollywood star's home, and even showed rare home movie footage of her father as a treat for attendees of a few of the double bills in the Balboa Theatre's gargantuan tribute to Boris Karloff, including one I saw: the Mask of Fu Manchu with the Lost Patrol.
5. Mary Woronov, interviewed by Peaches Christ before a screening of Death Race 2000 at the Bridge, was the just about the exact opposite of the calamity it could have been considering the interview began after midnight and was conducted in front of a horde of cult cinema diehards eager for their dose of on-screen mayhem.

A special shout-out to venues still screening 16mm films to appreciative celluloid-loving audiences. Here are five I loved in 2006:

1. Chris Marker's short city symphony in F (for Frisco), Junkopia, which played at the PFA in October.
2. The Orkly Kid at midnight as part of the Crispin Glover Film Festival at the Castro. The print was somewhat worn, but it still retained its color, depth and ability to blow the mind.
3. Nagisa Oshima's Death By Hanging, introduced by Irina Leimbacher at a SF Cinematheque screening at the California College of the Arts.
4. Liberty, a hilarious Laurel and Hardy short that played as part of the Silent Film Festival, also at the Castro.
5. Hideko the Bus Conductress, a title in the Mikio Naruse retrospective that came to the PFA but not to most other venues around the country. A film far less lightweight or innocuous than it appears on first glance, I was glad that a possible prejudice against 16mm didn't prevent the venue from making the series just a little closer to complete than it would have been otherwise.

Five films I'd seen on the "big screen" before, and was thrilled to experience in the cinema again last year, usually with a new initiate (or a few) in tow:

1. Still among my very favorite films, Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes, which I actually caught twice in its "director's cut" version, first at the PFA and then on the Castro's giant screen.
2. Another of my all time favorites, Playtime by Jacques Tati, which played as part of the Castro's 70mm series. I could watch this one every year, at least.
3. Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life in all its widescreen glory at the PFA.
4. Bernardo Bertolucci's the Conformist at the Balboa.
5. An incredible 70mm print of Stephen Lisberger's Tron, the Castro's 70mm/MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS crossover. Last I'd seen it in a theatre I was nine years old and the venue was the long-demolished Plaza Twin. This time I appreciated that the audience clapped almost as loudly at the credit for Wendy Carlos as for Jeff Bridges.

Five I'd seen only on video before; the jump to 35mm was a real revelation!

1. Street of Shame at the PFA. In a way this choice also represents the 3 other Kenji Mizoguchi films I'd also seen only on VHS before 2006. But of the quartet, this one leaped the farthest on my appreciation-meter.
2. Guy Maddin's the Heart of the World at the Kabuki's splendid House 1, as part of his SFIFF interview and tribute.
3. Brought to the Castro as part of a Hiroshi Teshigahara mini-retro, the Face of Another became an instant favorite when viewed on that screen.
4. David Lynch's Blue Velvet had actually been fading from my memory but watching it at the PFA ought to make it pretty indelible from here on in.
5. The outstanding Frisco-set Thieves' Highway by Jules Dassin. Brought to the Palace of Fine Arts by the masterminds of Noir City 4. More than a year later, and I still feel for those apples!

Five I'd never seen at all, but had been anticipating for at least a few years, waiting for a chance to see in a cinema. Their giant reputations proved to be well-deserved:

1. Celine and Julie Go Boating, which opened the Jacques Rivette retrospective at the PFA, and has been echoing in my head for months (in an entirely good way).
2. The Mortal Storm, also at the PFA, and the cream of a very bountiful crop of Frank Borzage films shown this summer. It's a heartbreakingly good film.
3. Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA). I'm still speechless.
4. Manhattan (yeah, believe it; I'd never seen Manhattan before) at the Red Vic; now my favorite Woody Allen film.
5. I'd never seen any version of Baby Face, directed by Alfred E. Green, before. But the "uncensored" version the Balboa showed as part of a Barbara Stanwyck double-bill now ranks among my favorite pre-code attacks on the hypocrisies of depression-era America. It's worth noting that a Stanwyck tribute is on deck for March at the Public Library's Large-Screen Video series.

But as much as I love climbing a cinematic mountain, I also love relatively secluded glens. There's a special pleasure derived from running across an amazing film somewhat unexpectedly. In 2005 I'd never have guessed I'd be adding these titles to my "personal masterpiece" list, but they're there now. These were particularly hard for me to rank against each other, so don't take the numbers at all seriously.

1. Passage Through: a Ritual, which played on a bill of Stan Brakhage's sound films at the YBCA. I wrote a bit on my experience watching the film in a comment here (scroll to the bottom).
2. The Travelling Actors, the most delightful surprise of the Mikio Naruse tribute I tried to delve into at the PFA. I can't think of a Japanese comedy I've enjoyed more than this view of professionalism and performance, set against a fascinating small-town, wartime backdrop.
3. Robot Monster, directed by Phil Tucker. All I knew was that I wanted to see something at the Castro's dual-projection 3-D series. Little did I know that this black-and-white On Beyond Zebra-grade movie would join Hitchcock's Dial 'M' For Murder as the only films I've seen in 3-D where the appealing qualities of the film do not depend on the 3-D gimmick effect. Sure, I'd love to see it again that way if I had a chance, but the transcendently bad costumes, bizarre dialogue, and incomprehensible narrative somehow combine to create an extraordinarily entertaining film that seems to obliterate the imaginary line between science fiction and the avant-garde. I'd see it again in any number of dimensions.
4. State Fair, shown as part of a Janet Gaynor centennial tribute at the PFA. I have to admit I'd never been drawn to the work of Henry King because of the stodgy reputations of many of his 1940s and 50s films, but after talking with Peter Nellhaus, in town for the Silent Film Festival, and hearing his admiration for the director, I resolved to see the first of his films that came across my path. I felt like I'd struck gold on my first shovelful of earth with this one, an incredibly lovely tribute to the reinvention of self that can occur in a dreamlike world like a fair- or a cinema.
5. The Boxer From Shantung by Chang Cheh, seen at the PFA as part of last year's SFIAAFF. I held back from attending all of the Heroic Grace screenings brought by last year's edition of the festival because I was holding out on a rumor that another theatre in Frisco proper would be presenting a larger collection of them. Though that never materialized, I was supremely happy to catch this 1972 film, apparently an inspiration for spoof in Stephen Chiau's Kung Fu Hustle. In some ways the Boxer From Shantung felt like a kung fu equivalent to the Godfather, with all the gravitas of Coppola's film. Plus an incredible final scene in which the hero spends half the battle fighting with an axe lodged in his abdomen. Talk about taking it very personal.

Albeit a highly specialized list, it's cool to see a mention of The Conformist. I cannot for the life of me understand why more people weren't talking about it at the end of they year.

I was completely floored by it, though for me it was the first time seeing it in any format.
Yeah, the Conformist really is something, isn't it? I'm not an expert in the period so I'd be curious to know if anyone else would agree with me, but from my perspective it feels like as much of an aesthetic and thematic vanguard for 1970 as Citizen Kane was for 1941.

I was very happy that the Balboa booked it for a whole week only a year or so after the Castro played it for a couple days. Repeat viewings of a film like this can only make it all the richer.
Wow! Robot Monster on the big screen!! As nutty as a gorilla wearing a deep sea diver helmet is to watch, I was impressed by Elmer Bernstein's score.
That's right- Bernstein scored that one, before he got his "prestige picture" break with the Man with the Golden Arm. Just another reason to love the film!
I'm posting this late, I know, but I just wanted to say I really enjoyed this write-up, Brian, and have yet more things to add to the mountain of "must-sees" ...
As do I pretty much whenever I check in over at your blog, Zach.

No such thing as late; I've got comment-notification turned on.
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