Saturday, June 28, 2008

Ahead of the Curve

For once, I have a few spare moments to write about movies I am planning on seeing.

First up is the San Francisco Silent Film Festival running July 11 to 13 at the Castro Theater. I bought my festival pass yesterday. I believe this is the first year the pass is good for the opening night film (but not the opening night party). They are showing 12 programs and few caught my attention. I have to see ~10 films to make the pass cost effective. I'm not sure if I'll make that many but I'll try my best.

The most interesting film is Tod Browning's The Unknown (1927). This snippet from the program guide says it all - Lon Chaney stars as Alonzo the Armless, who performs a knife-throwing act with his feet, and Joan Crawford is Nanon, who has a pathological fear of a man's touch. It's one of the most brazenly bizarre films ever made... hands down! Browning is best known for directing Dracula (1931) which is the first time Bela Lugosi donned the cape and fangs. He also made a cult horror classic called Freaks (1932) which I have heard much about but never seen. That film was set in a circus and the lost footage supposedly includes a castration scene.

Another interesting film on the festival calendar is Jujiro (1928). This film has a two aspects that are interesting to me. First, if the film is silent, is the appeal universal? Having seen most (I dozed off for parts of it) of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, I think the answer is no. There are cultural customs and aesthetics that show up on the screen which imprint the film with the origin of its director or its intended audience. It'll be interesting to see a Japanese film from this period. That leads to the second interesting point. I have a personal interest in Japanese culture and for the past 60 years, Japanese culture has been largely shaped by the Allied occupation after WWII and subsequent influence on the Japanese constitution and society. I'm very curious to see how pre-war Japanese society is depicted even though this film is described as avante-garde which is usually code for no discernible plot.

The closing night film is The Patsy (1928) directed by King Vidor and starring Marion Davies. As anyone who has been to Hearst Castle knows, Davies was William Randoph Heart's long-time mistress. I don't recall ever seeing a Davies film so it will be interesting to see Davies at the height of her beauty.


As I mentioned, I purchased membership to the Pacific Film Archive. I saw their July/August calendar yesterday and there were some interesting programs. Sidebar - the paper copies of the BAM/PFA calendar is huge; I think it is the size of a broadsheet newspaper except much thicker stock.

PFA has some programs coming up that caught my attention.

Streets of No Return: The Dark Cinema of David Goodis running August 1 to 23.

I had never heard of David Goodis until reading the program notes. He was a pulp fiction writer whose best known film adaptation was Dark Passage (1947) with Bogie and Bacall. That's the one where Bogie gets plastic surgery and spends most of the movie with bandages around his face.

Looking through the program which includes a couple of films introduced by local Czar of Noir Eddie Muller, founder and director of the Noir City Film Festival, I see a few diamonds in the rough.

The Burglar (1957) - Never one to fuss over a plot, Goodis is more interested in the queasy connection between [Dan] Duryea, his “adopted” sister, and their long-dead dad, a veteran burglar. An incestuous fog seems to permeate the proceedings as Duryea dotes on his mollish sis, played by Jayne Mansfield.

The Burglars (1971) - French remake of The Burglar steals nothing from its predecessor. Shifting the focus from incest to archrivalry, this Morricone-driven thriller pits a loopy Jean-Paul Belmondo as Azad, a crook, against dodgy cop Zacharia (Omar Sharif)—everything from A to Z. The caper consists of the theft of a fortune in emeralds from an Athens industrialist. But it’s the aftermath of the crime that counts, and according to Zacharia’s math he, not the thieves, should get all the green goodies.

Descent into Hell (1986) - Haiti stands in for hell, a place of steamy beaches, quaint cocktails, and death. Trying to salvage their frosty marriage, Alan (Claude Brasseur) and Lola (Sophie Marceau) head for the tropics, where the chill between them might thaw under the intense sun. Alan is a blocked mystery writer and a boozehound doggedly in descent; Lola, many years younger, is dogged by her own dire descent, an attempted rape that has left her iced over. In the throes of a bender, Alan wanders into the seamy side of Port-au-Prince looking for trouble, and trouble is more than happy to find him. Goodis’s sense that the past is inescapable is everywhere present in this slightly smarmy sojourn. And Lola’s body, like the desired manifestation of a mania, is everywhere to be seen, svelte, sweaty, and stripped.

Another program at PFA is The Long View: A Celebration of Widescreen - July 16 to August 30. 20th Century Fox introduced CinemaScope in 1953. Extending the movie screen to twice its previous width...CinemaScope was soon followed by other widescreen formats, including VistaVision, Superscope, Cinemiracle, and Panavision, most of which used anamorphic lenses to compress the visual information during filming and then re-expand it during projection.

Violent Saturday (1955) with Lee Marvin. Three stickup men posing as salesmen (it doesn’t get more ’50s) pull in for ‘business’; casing things out over a day and a night, they get acquainted with the population of Sherwood Anderson small-towners awash in hotel-bar cocktails, dreamy voyeurism, and infidelity..

Point Blank (1967) with Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson. Lee Marvin is Walker, left for dead in an Alcatraz heist and now out to find the $93,000 he has coming. No more, no less, unless you count revenge. If the plot sounds familiar, it's because Mel Gibson made an enjoyable remake titled Payback in 1999.

Other widescreen classics that need no synopsis include Lawrence of Arabia, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, 2001: A Space Odyssey, La Dolce Vita, and Yojimbo. You can't go wrong with David Lean, Francois Truffaut, Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini, and Akira Kurosawa.

The other program at PFA is United Artists: 90 Years - July 5 to August 31. I've seen a lot of films in this program but there are always old films that I haven't caught and this program provides a lot of opportunities. Most people don't know the story of the founding of UA. I always forget the founders except Chaplin. Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, D. W. Griffith, and Charles Chaplin had founded their own company, United Artists, in 1919. The idea of a 'studio without a studio'—a company that functioned primarily as a distributor, without the enormous overhead of a conventional Hollywood production/distribution/exhibition conglomerate—might have been crazy, but it stuck, and by the mid-fifties, UA was one of the most important forces in American cinema

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) with Buster Keaton and filmed on the Sacramento Delta.

The Shanghai Gesture (1941) directed by Josef von Sternberg.

The Killing (1956) directed by Stanley Kubrick with Sterling Hayden.

The Thief of Bagdad (1924) directed by Raoul Walsh with Douglas Fairbanks and Anna May Wong.

Broken Blossoms (1919) directed by D.W. Griffith with Lillian Gish.

The Night of the Hunter (1955) directed by Charles Laughton with Robert Mitchum; I have never seen this film.


There are several other worthwhile screening this summer.

The Castro Theater is holding its annual 70 MM Film Festival with perennials Lawrence of Arabia, The Wild Bunch, and Tron. The festival runs July 1-9.

I've been to one screening a few years ago. For some reason I don't get their email updates. Despite this, I am intrigued by The 1st Annual Charlie McGraw Film Festival sponsored by The Danger and Despair Knitting Circle. DDKC is a local group that shows 16 MM noir films in vacant office spaces in Downtown SF. The location changes and you need to email an RSVP but its something different. No dates on the Charlie McGraw festival.

I am also a member of The Mechanics' Institute. They sponsor a CinemaLit series on Friday nights. I haven't made any of the showings. Earlier in the year, they were showing films every Friday but it seems like they drop to every other Friday through August. Mick LaSalle at the SF Chronicle recommended a Maurice Chevalier film called The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) with Claudette Colbert and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. It's showing on July 25.

If you miss the July 25 showing of The Smiling Lieutenant at The Mechanics' Institute, you can catch it at The Stanford Theater on July 9. Their summer series is heavy on old films including three Marx Brothers films and silent films every Wednesday night.

If that wasn't enough, there is one more festival where I want to catch at least one film. From July 24 to August 11, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival plays at various locations around the Bay Area. A few months ago, I was listening to NPR (which makes me sound much more liberal than I really am) and heard a segment about Stalag novels which were popular in Israel in the 1960's. If you are not familiar with a Stalag novel, it was a fiction genre popular in the aforementioned time and place. The plot typically involved a Allied flyers during WWII. Their planes are shot down over German territory and they are captured. They are "interrogated" by female SS/Gestapo guards who just happen to be stunningly beautiful. Tortured and humiliated by these freaky fräuleins, the flyers turn the tables on their captors and escape but not before raping and murdering their Aryan captors and thus settling the score. That sounds like a porno film or teenage boy's fantasy...actually, if you throw in werewolves, I think it also describes the plot of one of the fake previews in Grindhouse. I would like to see a legitimate film adaptation of a Stalag novel or just to read one of them (I Was Colonel Schultz’s Private Bitch sounds thought provoking). I guess I'll have to settle for a documentary on the phenomenon called Stalags - Holocaust and Pornography in Israel.

That reminds a unique San Francisco bookstore called Kayo Books that I have visited in the past. I think I'll stop by there to see if they carry stalag novels.


If that plethora of films is not enough to get you excited I don't know what can...except maybe these two Nazis questioning a POW. You may wonder why the swastika is inverted. After thinking about it, I believe it is because displaying the swastika was/is illegal in Israel.

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