Tuesday, August 14


Fall Out

This past weekend was the 85th Anniversary of the Castro Theatre, and though I meant to mention it here at Hell on Frisco Bay beforehand, at least I wrote a little something about the theatre, as part of a tribute put together by Michael Guillen at the Evening Class, also including terrific reminiscences from Jenni Olson, Jonathan Knapp, Frako Loden, Tavo Amador and Michael Hawley. On Saturday I was there to attend the closest modern approximation I've seen of an old-style "kiddie matinee": a Laurel & Hardy comedy featurette (1937's Way Out West) preceded by a selection of unannounced classic cartoons by Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, and more. The biggest highlight of the morning for me was definitely seeing Tex Avery's 60-year-old MGM short King-Size Canary in 35mm for the first time, its images of unnaturally-hulking funny animal bodies projected as large as could be imagined. Best of all, as a throwback to the ticket prices of 1922 when the the theatre opened, the event only cost a quarter! Sorry if my failure to highlight this event (or the other events the venue hosted during its celebratory weekend) caused any of my loyal readers to miss out; let it be a reminder to keep clicking the links on my sidebar to the left when I seem overdue for a new post.

Another tribute to the theatre was written up by Evan James for the latest A.V. Bay Area section of the Onion newspaper (not available online). It's the only recent article I've found that devotes a few paragraphs of ink to the changes the Castro has undergone during the last three years or so, since the venue's longtime programmer was removed from her position at the theatre. As James puts it:
Some of the theater's troubles - including the loss of film festivals and the reluctance of distributors to do business with them - undoubtedly came from the controversial events of 2004, when veteran programmer Anita Monga was fired, provoking outrage from parts of the film community.
That characterization of the events seems bit understated from my point of view, which I suppose is fair enough in a piece of journalism that relies heavily on an interview with the Castro's new president and CEO Don Nasser. But as I recall events, it seemed that practically everyone who knew Monga, even if "only" through her work as a programmer, was beyond outraged at her firing and at the way it went down.

Three years later, it appears to a relative outsider like myself that events of late 2004, while not forgotten by Frisco cinephiles, are at least not quite as heavy a cloud hanging over our last remaining movie palace. The Castro's approach to programming has improved markedly from the low point it hit in early-mid 2005. The Noir City film festival had a successful return to the venue of its birth earlier this year. Monga herself has been spotted in the building, at least while it's been four-walled by a film festival showcasing a one-of-a-kind event. And James' article observes that "distributors who once refused to give [the Castro] film are now having a change of heart." Indeed, the venerable Kino International, which cancelled a 2005 revival booking of Wong Kar-wai's Days of Being Wild and hasn't shown its films there since, will be letting the Castro play a new print of the film perhaps most closely associated with the company's image as a distributor, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, August 24-30.

That's by far the oldest title on the theatre's upcoming slate of films. Most of the revivals on this latest calendar are of the cinematic hits and re-evaluation-worthy misses of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Though tonight's screenings were canceled due to a print traffic snafu, a sign on the theatre box office apologizes and promises a can't miss double bill of Werner Herzog's early-seventies reputation-earners Aguirre: the Wrath of God and the Mystery of Kaspar Hauser (a.k.a. Every Man For Himself and God Against All) tomorrow. Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Doulos from 1962 plays for a week starting this Friday. A William Friedkin series runs September 4-6, and is followed by a week-long engagement of that director's most notorious film Cruising, from 1980. September 15 brings a chance to see the 1971 car chase classic Vanishing Point alongside the Quentin Tarantino film that has given it so much recent exposure, Death Proof (sans Planet Terror, for all you zombie-averse moviegoers out there). A 70mm festival includes usual suspects such as 1962's Lawrence of Arabia (Sep. 22-23) as well as an oddity like Tobe Hooper's 1985 Lifeforce (Sep. 21), the latter brought to you by Jesse Hawthorne Ficks of MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS (which will also take over the Castro on August 31 and September 14th). The calendar concludes with a September 28 through October 4 tribute to the average film score fanatic's favorite film score composer, Jerry Goldsmith.

Two things to note: the calendar warns that the print of Papillon scheduled to play with the Ballad of Cable Hogue on October 3rd is "not up to our usual high standards but because of its place in the Goldsmith pantheon it is included." Hopefully, for such a composer-centric series, the print's problems will be in the image rather than sound quality department. Also, the September 7-13 run of Cruising will be projected digitally. I very much appreciate this kind of honesty in advance. It's much more ethical, in my view, than the "film festivals" which neglect to play much actual film at all, instead opting to show most shorts and features on DVD, without any warning in the program guide.

It's here than I mention that SFMOMA, which for the past ten months or so has really started trying to flex its muscles as an important filmgoing venue here in Frisco, alerted attendees who picked up a program of its still-ongoing Jean Renoir series (and read the small print) that Boudu Saved From Drowning and the Lower Depths were to be shown on DVD instead of film, since prints with English subtitles were not available. It was a bit surprising to learn, as I'd seen English-subbed 35mm prints in New York City only a few years ago. But it was rather dismaying to learn that such information was not to be found on the museum's website. If more DVD presentations are planned in the future, I hope there is sufficient advance warning online for any of us who might decide to trek over to 151 Third Street to see the venue's enticing Fall programs such as the films by Joseph Cornell in conjunction with the upcoming exhibit there, and a rare focus on East German cinema.

Not that I am philosophically against digital, or even DVD screenings. They're certainly a lot better than no screenings, especially when they're free. The SF Performing Arts Library and Museum is hosting free documentaries on performers, in conjunction with its continuing exhibit on the hungry i nightclub each Thursday this August, some with in-person guest appearances. This Thursday August 16th they show the fascinating Oscar-nominated documentary from 1998, Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth. Call the venue in advance to reserve seats.

Another free digital screening is the local Film Society's annual SF-in-SF event, Film in the Fog. This time the selection is Creature From the Black Lagoon. You could pay to see the film in 35mm at the Stanford Theatre August 22-24, or at the Bridge (in 3-D, with Elvira, Mistress of the Dark as guest host) at Midnight Mass August 24th, if there are still tickets left to buy, that is. Or you can wait to see the SFFS's outdoor projection of it in the Presidio for free on September 29th.

But it warms my heart to see new organizations committed to showcasing motion pictures on film formats meeting with success at various venues around town. I'm specifically thinking of kino21, which, as you hopefully read about in Max Goldberg's excellent sf360 interview with Konrad Steiner and Irina Leimbacher, has been putting together terrific programs at Artists' Television Access (which will open its Other Cinema programs September 15th with a screening of films featured on the Xperimental Eros DVD.) But kino21 has also been trying out SF Camerawork as a venue. A week and a half ago a roomful of us swooned over a 16mm print of the beautiful, longing Song and Solitude by Nathaniel Dorsky, who answered audience questions after the screening. I hope to make it back there this Thursday for two more Dorsky films, Threnody (his tribute to the life and death of Stan Brakhage) and Triste. Maybe this time I'll get up the guts to ask him how his poetic work might possibly relate to the exploitation film he wrote the screenplay for: Revenge of the Cheerleaders, which I also recently saw for the first time thanks to MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS. Or maybe I won't ask.

Another upstart filmophile organization is the Film on Film Foundation, who screened Isadore Isou's Venom and Eternity at the Roxie this past May, just in time for me to get to appreciate this singular, trailscorching artist for a few months before he died. The Film on Film folks are bringing the Japanese New Wave film Eros Plus Massacre to the Pacific Film Archive on September 16th.

Awkward segue alert: it's currently Japan week at the Red Vic Movie House, which hosts a last-chance cinema screening of the Satochi Kon anime Paprika tonight and tomorrow, and opens a five-day engagement of the politically-singed, bizarrely entertaining "Pink film" the Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai on Thursday. More upcoming items on the Red Vic calendar include Killer of Sheep August 26-27, Brand Upon the Brain! August 28-29, and six days of Werner Herzog in September. Linas Phillips' secular pilgrimage to this most inspirational filmmaker Walking to Werner is shown on the 9th, 10th, and 11th, with Fitzcarraldo on the 16th & 17th and Les Blank's truly incredible making-of documentary on the latter, Burden of Dreams on the 18th.

On the film festival front, there's the Dead Channels Festival of Fantastic Film running right now through Thursday, the Madcat Women's International Film Festival (September 11-28) which has announced its schedule of films, and Docfest (September 28-October 10) which has not as of yet.

I must say it's a good thing that there's all this activity on the festival, repertory and underground cinema front. Because honestly the latest SF Landmark Filmcalendar looks like that chain's least-exciting slate of week-long film engagements in quite some time. I've pegged one film, Vanaja (October 5-11) as a must-see, but on an initial look all the others range from "looks completely uninteresting" to "wait-and-see (what the critics have to say)". And then there's the film I already have seen, at this year's Sundance: For the Bible Tells Me So. Extremely well-intentioned, it may appeal to Frisco filmgoers who like to scout out possible documentaries for their Red State relatives to put into their rental queues in the hopes of opening their minds up a bit. But honestly, I bet most will end up wishing they'd skipped the step of actually watching the film before recommending it, as it's likely to be 100% old news to almost anyone in this town who views it. Just another reason why, after the last few goodie-packed Filmcalendars from Landmark, this one feels like a letdown, though I'd love to be convinced otherwise.

Apologies for posting this without pictures and only the bare minimum of links. The rest will arrive shortly (though if you have any particular suggestions of links for films I've mentioned, please let me know!)
Brian, I've also been irked by the SFMOMA showing stuff on DVD. I skipped the opening night of SFIFF this year to see Land Without Bread at SFMOMA. It was shown on 16mm, thankfully, but it was bracketed by Resnais' Guernica and Ivens' The Spanish Earth shown on crummy DVD! And unless I'm not remembering correctly, it wasn't free. (Bunuel was worth the price, though.)

I was irritated, but then someone told me that the Picasso exhibit was just a bunch of lithographs. And back when they were doing that Ansel Adams thing, they just put a bunch of calendars on the wall.

Didn't feel so bad, then.
I really want to see Melville's Le Doulos and I'd love to catch Eros Plus Massacre in Sept! I probably won't end up seeing either, but a girl can dream.
Kimberly, I hope you can make it to those. They're definitely high on my to-see list for the next month or so.

Rob, have I ever mentioned how much I love your dry cinephile humor?

I came this close to attending that Bunuel/Resnais/Ivens screening myself, but decided at the last minute to pick kino21's presentation of Quick Billy instead. After hearing your tale of woe I'm all the gladder for my decision.

The website descriptions of the East German cinema and Joseph Cornell programs throw around the words "celluloid" and "35mm" which is surely a good sign. Perhaps the rule here is to assume video unless otherwise mentioned? I hope to see Rules of the Game there soon so maybe I can ask someone working there about the situation...
Brian, I had the exact same reaction to the new Landmark calendar...bleah! The only one of those 13 films I'm excited about is CONTROL, the Ian Curtis/Joy Division biopic which got uniformly rave reviews when it premiered at Cannes. I saw VANAJA on screener at the SFIFF and enjoyed it, but not enough to see it again on the big screen. Hopefully, this autumn's Mill Valley, Arab and Latino film festivals will include some of the titles we might have wished were on the Landmark calendar.
Michael, I'm curious about Control but trying to keep my expectations in check. I actually did encounter a few somewhat worrisome reviews out of Cannes, and I may have too much Joy Division fandom in my past to be able to accept this interpretation. Of the others, the Last Winter seems like it might have something, but then again it might not. Reports I heard on Finishing the Game from the SFIAAFF were mixed, as was the Park City buzz on the King of Kong, Delirious and the Joe Strummer doc, at least upwind from my ears. And it doesn't leave much left, does it? Hopefully I'll make it to some of these anyway; sometimes restrained expectations are just what the doctor ordered for an enjoyable time at the movies.
I saw Vanaja at SFIFF, too, and mostly didn't care for it.
SFMOMA "starting to try", if only!

It's disheartening to see that the Cornell films will be "free with museum admission".

When there is no one watching the door at SFMOMA regularly-priced screnings people wander in to rest up between galleries, bringing their cafe habits with them. One can just imagine what it will be like when "come on it, we're giving it away" is the order of the day!

Yes, MOMA in NYC allows access to screenings with admission, but that venue has a long history of presenting film as an art form and has fostered this attitude in its audience over many decades.

Yes, these are different times, but if they don't want the cinema to be seen as an add on to the galleries, ala the gift shop or the cafe, they have some work to do!

Netta Fedor gave VANAJA the thumbs up, so I'm glad I'll get a chance to see it!

Good with the bad, eh?
Well, thanks for keeping my expectations regarding Vanaja in check as well, Rob. I may be making too much over a line in Michael Sicinski's review (scroll down):

"In fact, Vanaja's exploration of resiliency and loss, hatred and forgiveness, makes it seem like nothing so much as a de facto eighth New Crowned Hope film, produced with a fraction of the support."

Indian cinema is really one my my worst blind spots. I've not seen very much beyond a few Bollywood and a few Satyajit Ray films. So I'm excited to get a chance to see a film from that region that comes with high praise from a critic I admire. Even if other critics I admire are more lukewarm toward the film.

"cranky", I haven't had the same negative experiences at the few (two, actually) SFMOMA screenings I've attended in the past year. The crowd at La Marsellaise was very small but quite polite. But the behavior you describe sounds pretty bad, and somehow seems not wholly unrelated to the less-than-serious approach the programming has displayed to showing film works in the medium they were intended for. Perhaps I've dodged a bullet both times I visited?

I've heard tell of, and even experienced for myself, pretty appalling audience behavior at New York's MOMA too, though. Luckily, immature audience behavior tends to amuse rather than to annoy me most of the time.
"Luckily, immature audience behavior tends to amuse rather than to annoy me most of the time."

I know! The anti-Catholic hisser at the Hertzog *was* divertingly retro. Remember when people at the Roxie hissed at everything? (I mean, you gotta bust that cheesecake at the Scopitone program!) It was just like the 90's again!

The problem is a fairly happy one, when one thinks of it. Film enhancing audiences do keep me from going the DVD route. I go to the movies a lot and am perhaps a bit too serious about the sanctity of the experience.

I will still try the Cornells, though.

And my dismay over the Cornells kept me from posting my praise of the Castro! Who's the fool here?
The Roxie was really only on my radar screen toward the end of its 90s heyday, and I don't recall hissers there. I have experienced them at the Castro before though.

I just noticed I wrote "upwind" when I meant "downwind" a few comments above.

And though I failed to round-up the gamut of local video-but-free projections, I was twice reminded yesterday of more: first, when GreenCine Daily pointed to Dennis harvey on a Pasolini series at the Italian Cultural Institute. Second, when I was walking toward the 38 Geary bus stop at Union Square only to encounter the booming of Jared Hess's voice in Napoleon Dynamite, showing to a large crowd as part of the ifc Free Film Festival. Very surreal to hear lines such as "I already made like infinity of those at scout camp" loudly echoing against the walls of Macy's and Saks...
oh, the roxie- the interactive crowds were why i stopped going to that theatre.

it happened again last night at "earrings of madame de" and that was at the PFA. the audience was guffawing as though they were watching buster keaton.

but not to complain too much because i am VERY excited about seeing the cornell.
Yeah, and last night there were a few very expressive reactors to the Twilight's Last Gleaming at the YBCA. I don't know why, but I'm rarely annoyed by such reactions, and sometimes even seek it out. For example, yesterday there were still tickets available for the Midnight Mass screening of Creature From the Black Lagoon this Friday, and so I'll definitely be there among the raucous Massers.

I wish I hadn't missed Madame de... though.
Brian, I actually sought out Vanaja after reading Sicinski's review. I had a different reaction, but I'd be curious to hear yours.

I feel the same way as you about Indian cinema. I've asked Indian friends for recommendations and come up empty. My non-cinephile Indian friends like a few Bollywood films but think they're silly, and my cinephile Indian friends (Girish) also lament the lack of good filmmakers to recommend. They must be out there, though.

It's one reason to be glad for the Shyam Benegal series just announced at the PFA. (I'm not familiar with this filmmaker at all, but I'm hoping to discover someone good.)

I saw a wonderful Indian documentary called John & Jane Toll Free a few years ago. Sadly it never got a proper release.
I had the just the same reaction to learning about the Benegal series. I'd never heard of him before but it seems to be arriving just in the nick of time!

I taped Pyaasa, Pakeezah and one other film off of TCM a few years ago when they were doing a classic Hindi film series. But I haven't sat down and watched them yet. The length of the average Indian film is admittedly an obstacle...

I'm pretty sure Adam Hartzell once told me he really liked John and Jane Toll-Free. I really ought to see it. If I can find an opportunity, that is.
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