Tuesday, January 2


Listless Empire

I just sent off my list of favorite 2006 Frisco film releases to the Australian film journal Senses of Cinema, who have been kind enough to host my year-end thoughts a few times before. It should be published in a few weeks, though I hope to have something here at Hell on Frisco Bay to tide over all you list-junkies out there soon.

What can I say? I'm a list-junkie myself and at this time of year there's always a bumper crop coming from awards groups, critics, and increasingly, bloggers. Film studios and distributors have long understood this and have tried to place their most critic-friendly films in cinemas at a time when they can reap maximum financial benefit from the publicity of being mentioned by a high-profile awards group or a large number of critics. Critics know this strategy well enough for it to often turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, with a year-end release becoming a critical sensation seemingly due as much to the timing of press screenings and national release patterns as to the actual merit of the film in question.

Luckily, there are plenty of critics and bloggers who try to resist being pulled and pushed by the studios playing this game. Most of my favorites this year have prefaced their top ten lists this year with some sort of disclaimer about the impossibility of seeing every film released in a year, the limitations of rating works of art against each other, the arbitrariness of a list usually made up primarily of first impressions (how many films do you take the time to see twice or more the year they're released?) hastily formed in a few weeks toward the end of the year. Vern, for example, alludes to the latter when admitting he doesn't feel comfortable putting Children of Men on the top of his list because he's only had three days to process it.

But one side effect from running this blog for a year and a half now is an unexpected, newfound empathy for the critics and awards groups that pack their lists with December and January releases. I used to silently accuse such listmakers of having bad memories and even wonder if they were somehow being "bought" by Oscar season's would-be movers and shakers. And to be honest those sorts of thoughts probably don't enter my mind any less often than they ever did. But now, because of the nature of Hell on Frisco Bay I think I understand just a little bit better the joy of sharing a film you've loved so much with a friend or a stranger or a readership full of friends and strangers. And the joy is amplified when a friend or stranger actually has a chance to view that film. Preferably in the same way you did and the same way the filmmakers intended: on film, in a darkened theatre, with a real-life audience. Which may be one reason, conscious or not, why the New York Film Critics Circle's choice of the already-on-DVD United 93 (which I admittedly have not seen) as their Best Picture of 2006 seemed like something of an anticlimactic statement on December 11th (are you New Yorkers saying there's not something majestically better than that for all of us cinemagoers across the land to anticipate?) It may be one more little reason why Crash's win at last year's Oscars was such a letdown for so many. I know most people don't come as close to fetishizing the theatrical experience as I do (better than fetishizing DVDs, I say), but does that mean it's pure projection on my part when I wonder if one small reason for critical acclaim to so often coalesce around December and January releases is simply the good will critics have for sharing the theatrical experience? This is not a rhetorical question, if you'd like to tease it out in the comments section below.

I guess it's here where I might as well reveal that my favorite film of 2006 was Terrence Malick's the New World. Yeah, most everyone else classifies it as a 2005 release. It's definitely on DVD, and not coming soon to a theatre near you or me. But there was no way the average (or even the above average) moviegoer could have seen it in 2005 unless they lived in or traveled to New York or Los Angeles during the last week of December. Or crashed a press screening or got a hold of a screener, I suppose. But Malick's film, more than almost any other new feature I've seen in the past year or two, demands to be seen in a cinema. I'll admit my bias: the qualities that make the film more cinema-friendly than home video-friendly are some of the same ones that made me cherish it so much: its patience, its grandeur, its splendid quietness, its moments of audacious energy, it's creation of a new, and for more than two hours wholly absorbing cinematic world up there on the big screen. This is one film I did see twice on the big screen, and wished I'd squeezed in even more viewings that way.

I'm not the only Frisco cinephile I know who thinks of the New World as a major highlight of 2006. Jeffrey Anderson liked the 2006 cut significantly better than the version he saw at a 2005 press screening. And Jesse Hawthorne Ficks, programmer of the Castro Theatre's monthly (give or take) MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS triple-bills placed Malick's film at number two on his top ten list for the Bay Guardian's massive year-end film issue. He also included a big, hilariously accurate asterisk along with his submission: "though he hasn't seen David Lynch's Inland Empire yet". Neither have I, but in certain ways David Lynch's latest film seems like the New World for 2007: 100%-certified auteur product, hotly anticipated, only available to New Yorkers, Angelinos and a few others last year, extremely divisive among those who have seen it, and nowhere to be found in Frisco until well into the New Year.

Exactly how well into it? Our first chance comes January 19th when Lynch is set to appear at the Rafael Film Center, which started distributing its new calendar last week. The film will open there for an engagement of an unspecified length on February 9th. Other upcoming highlights at Marin County's most thoughtfully-programmed cinema include its annual showcase of Oscar-submitted foreign films (Jan. 12-21) and a pair of programs devoted to the modernist animation studio best known for Gerald McBoing-Boing, UPA. The first of which (on March 15 & 18) I can highly recommend, it being a duplicate of a program that Russell Merrit brought to the Pacific Film Archive a couple years ago, and the second of which I've already placed a force field around March 22 in my calendar so I can see (it also plays March 25).

But crossing the Golden Gate Bridge isn't always the most convenient thing in the world, something cyclists were surprised to be reminded of yesterday (peace out to cyclists and to Code Pink; I admire you all.) And I'll be out of town on the 19th anyway, so my target date for Inland Empire is actually February 8th. The day it opens the 2007 IndieFest at the Castro Theatre. Early reports on this year's IndieFest schedule make it sound like they might really outdo themselves this time around, and opening with a self-distributed David Lynch film sure seems like a good sign. More signs are appearing on the festival's myspace page, which reveals Fido as the closing film (February 20) and Manhattan, Kansas, Rolling, Dante's Inferno and the Substance of Things Hoped For among the other selections. I've also been given the go-ahead to mention that Joe Swanberg's LOL and Kazuyoshi Kumakiri's Green Mind, Metal Bats will play at the festival. The latter one I'm particularly eyeing as IndieFest has for a while now been very good at digging for some of the most fascinating, bizarre and entertaining new films from Japan; they've played at least as many Takashi Miike films as any Frisco venue, and I'm still kicking myself for missing last year's Katsuhito Ishii oddity Funky Forest: First Contact.

Rumor has it that Anita Monga has somehow joined forces with the 2007 IndieFest folks. In the meantime, the Castro Theatre which she booked for sixteen years is about to launch what may be its most Monga-esque calendar since her departure from that role. In addition to a spectacular 15-film Janus series featuring the kinds of titles (Jules and Jim, Drunken Angel, etc.) she used to routinely bring to the theatre there's the return of Noir City, a festival she helped start five years ago and that pulled out of the Castro in 2004 and 2005 as a direct result of her abrupt, unexplained firing. There's a pair of British Hitchcocks February 28th, and there's a 70s & 80s sci-fi double-bill series called "Tormented Terrestrials Tuesdays" which features titles like the Omega Man (Feb. 13) and Flash Gordon (Feb. 27) but most impressively, the inclusion of the amazing avant-garde short Outer Space by Peter Tscherkassky before John Carpenter's the Thing March 6th. This is the kind of gentle guidance out of the realm a friend calls "cinematic comfort food" (for the 80s sci-fi crowd and the a-g crowd both, come to think of it) that good programming is supposed to do sometimes. And I certainly won't try to conceal my thankfulness that the Castro will be the site of a recurring calendar-long Robert Altman tribute featuring double bills like the Long Goodbye with California Split (Jan. 23), the Player and Short Cuts (Feb. 11), Nashville and Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (Feb. 25), and more. Most special for me is the March 7th recreation of the Altman double feature that turned me into a confirmed Alt-maniac at the Castro several years ago: McCabe and Mrs. Miller paired with Three Women.

I've done it again. I started off with a point, and then began drifting off into anticipatory mode, listing all the upcoming screenings I'm interested in. I'll be happy to rejoin a discussion of year-end listing or anything else in the comments section, but I might as well continue rounding-up Frisco screening venues for a while. In mostly random order:

The restored (and as yet unvisited by me) California Theatre in San Jose is currently showing classic movies for a mere five dollar ticket. From now through Thursday it's Gone With the Wind, on Jan. 5th and 6th Casablanca (another print of which also plays Oakland's Paramount the first of those days- anyone care to do a comparison?), Douglas Fairbanks in the Mark of Zorro with Dennis James on the Wurlitzer organ Jan. 7, North By Northwest Jan. 8-11 and Breakfast at Tiffany's on the 12th-14th.

Artists' Television Access is showing the Cuban film that's topped the results of at least one critical poll on the greatest Latin American films, Memories of Underdevelopment, January 11th as part of its A.N.S.W.E.R. film series.

If you're like me you've never visited the UA Emery Bay; it just seems like a faceless multiplex way on the other side of the Bay Bridge. But anyone interested in seeing a Metropolitan Opera performance broadcast live onto a movie theatre screen might want to take note of this schedule. A movie theatre in even farther-off Dublin is also broadcasting these Saturday performances.

Frisco's Main Library will be showing episodes of the landmark Civil Rights documentary Eyes on the Prize every Thursday at noon starting January 4th.

And that's all for now!

I know most people don't come as close to fetishizing the theatrical experience as I do

I rarely watch DVDs, but viewed 3 in the last week. One (Sideways) was with friends while we were waiting to usher in the new year. The other two were Almodovar's All About My Mother and Bad Education, which I was viewing as part of my follow up to seeing and reviewing Volver.

And what a painful experience it was to view these three on DVD. Aside from the loss of superior sound, big screen, etc, the distraction factor was just terrible. When it's the big screen, everyone knows (usually) to shut up. There's no rewind; you've only got one shot at it.

Again, I rarely see DVD, but see as much as I can on the big screen (over 200 for 2006). You're not alone.
It was interesting reading David Denby compare Million Dollar Baby on HD DVD against how it looked on 35mm, and conclude that "Eastwood, having directed almost thirty films, may have intended “Million Dollar Baby” to look the way it looks on film." It's the sort of statement I rarely see (maybe I'm just looking in the wrong places). What I see even less of is the suggestion that many or most Hollywood films are made to look good on television sets, and that this compromises their ability to be truly "filmic"- which is why I cherish the New World so much.

Paul, I'm with you about the distractions of watching DVDs at home. There's something nice about being able to rewind if you miss something, but I also think it gives me permission to pay a bit less careful attention. It's just a more casual experience.

Though, I have the luxury of saying this because I live in a place that still has a strong diversity of filmgoing opportunities. I don't mean to trivialize the opportunities DVDs have brought cinephiles in areas remote from adventurous cinemas to expand their motion picture horizons.
I LOVED "The New World" though I saw it in 2005 at a preview of some sort. I can NOT imagine trying to watch it at home, even on my projector. The pacing and epic beauty requires from me, a locked away space, where I can be overwhelmed by it and not distracted by the microwave. ;)

Though, if I were to see it at a multi-plex, a text messaging teen might be just as interfering.
Thanks for the heads up on "Memories", Brian. I rarely check ATA's schedule so am glad you brought it to my attention.

I'll be checking out the California on Sunday for "Zorro" (it's an afternoon matinee) so I can report back on the theater.

Thanks again for all the hard work!

Jay, I saw the New World first at an early-January preview in San Rafael with a very respectful (either rapt or sleepy) audience. Then I saw it toward the end of its run at the (urp) Metreon. I find I don't mind that place nearly as much if I sit really close to the front of a sparsely-populated theatre. Which is what I did that time. If there were any folks using their electronic devices in the theatre they were all behind me and I didn't notice.

Archiveguy, please do report back on the California Theatre. I wish I could join you on Sunday but I have prior a commitment that afternoon.
Can I join you for INLAND EMPIRE? Are there tix to be had yet? I'm ridiculously intrigued and *dammit* -- bloody excited for that movie. Much moreso than having an opinion on UNITED 93, BLOOD DIAMOND, LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, etc.
I don't believe tickets are on sale yet. I would guess in a week or two, but keep monitoring the IndieFest myspace page (I think I fixed the previously-broken link) for details.

As for meeting up, Ryland, check your e-mail.
"if one small reason for critical acclaim to so often coalesce around December and January releases is simply the good will critics have for sharing the theatrical experience?"

As a fellow fetishizer, I can relate to much of what you say. But I am under the impression that the 'theatrical experience' of most critics involves sitting amidst a bunch of 'Mix-96' radio listeners who were the 5th through 50th callers to win tickets to a sneak preview. I know for me, a positive theatrical experience consists of a two-row buffer between me and any other popcorn-munching gabbers. I believe critics are more influenced by the deadline pressure of having to see a dozen or more movies in time to finish their end-of-year review before the holidays. That's why I don't release my top ten list until mid-February, the public be damned!
I think you're probably right, Ron. Also, I don't have a strong understanding of the way film publicity works, but I've been hearing hints that more critics are insisting on doing their reviewing of new movies by way of DVD screener. It makes a certain amount of sense considering that for most people nowadays the majority of filmwatching is done via television sets. And I'd rather read an insightful piece of criticism written from a DVD copy than a useless plot summary written from a theatrical screening. But I also hope that a critic would be upfront about the method by which a film was viewed. And I wonder if a tendency to review films as home video experiences rather than theatrical experiences is helping to kill off "filmic" virtues ever faster.
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