Saturday, July 25, 2009

Dog Days of Summer

As of today, I have gone 5 days without going to the movies. I can't recall the last time I went five days without going to the theater. I was planning on seeing a All This, and Heaven Too at the PFA on Wednesday but I decided to go to the gym. I was thinking about Thrillville's Shatfest at the 4 Star on Thursday but worked late and then decided to go to the gym. So it has come to this, I'd rather work or go to the gym than go to the movies.

I still have some movies on my To Do list.

First and foremost is Departures. It opened on May 29 and it is still playing in the theaters. I don't know how much longer it will be screening so I better catch it while I can. Departures, a Japanese film, was the 2009 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Castro is screening six Tarantino films from July 31 to August 2.

From August 5 to 13, the Castro is presenting Music On Film: A Rock‘n’ Roll Phantasmagoria!, whose title says it all. Among the films I have seen are Dazed and Confused (a personal favorite scene is the one where the paddle a kid while Alice Cooper's No More Mr Nice Guy plays on the soundtrack), Repo Man and American Graffiti. The films that interest me are:

  • Absolute Beginners (1986) - Julien Temple’s kaleidoscopic musical about the birth of youth culture in post-war Britain stars Eddie O'Donnell as a spunky photographer who dances and carouses the night away in Swinging London with his eyes set on sex kitten Patsy Kensit. Appearing in memorable numbers are Ray Davies, David Bowie and Sade. The Wellesian intro is a modern marvel of movie magic!

  • Model Shop (1969) - With the threat of car repossession and the draft looming over his head, unemployed architect Gary Lockwood encounters mysterious rent-a-girl Anouk Aimée, for whom he will sacrifice what little money he has to win her over. Hypnotic driving sequences throughout Los Angeles set to the music of Spirit permeate Jacques Demy’s bittersweet sequel of sorts to Lola.

  • Junior High School (1978) - This overlooked and influential late-70s homemade musical contains Paula Abdul's debut (16 years old!) as well as Yo La Tengo's front man Ira Kaplan singing such junior high classics as Itty Bitty Titty Committee!

As I previously mentioned, Douglas Fairbanks' silent classic The Black Pirate (1926) is screening at the California Theater in San Jose on August 7.

At the Red Vic, they are screening a few interesting films in August.

  • The Hippie Temptation (1967) - Produced by CBS news, The Hippie Temptation originally aired on television in August, 1967. The film showcases how the establishment (mostly in the form of veteran CBS newsman Harry Reasoner) viewed the strange happenings in San Francisco during that magical summer. Filmed right here in the Haight, this camp classic is a hilariously biased documentary featuring interviews with psychiatrists, parents and flower children. This show may have done than any other media creation to cause young people to flock to the Haight. (50m) Plays with assorted shorts.

  • Easy Rider (1969) - Crank up Born to Be Wild, slip into your biker leathers and join us for this special screening of Easy Rider, newly restored for its 40th anniversary. Join Wyatt, aka Captain America, (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) as they complete a drug deal with a limousine-driving dealer (played by Phil Spector!) and set out on their choppers "in search of America". Along the way they have a variety of experiences, including getting thrown in jail where they meet an outgoing ACLU lawyer, George (Jack Nicholson). Seen decades later, the film is a kind of cinematic Rorschach-inkblot of the sixties' societal landscape and its success jump-started a generation of independent film-making.

  • Tyson (2008) - Tyson is indie director James Toback's (The Pick-up Artist) stylistically inventive portrait of a mesmerizing Mike Tyson. Toback allows Tyson to reveal himself without inhibition and with eloquence and a pervasive vulnerability. Through a mixture of original interviews and archival footage and photographs, a startlingly complex, fully-rounded human being emerges. The film ranges from Tyson's earliest memories of growing up on the mean streets of Brooklyn through his entry into the world of boxing, to his rollercoaster ride of worldwide fame and fortune. It is the story of a legendary and uniquely controversial international athletic icon, a figure conjuring radical questions of race and class. In its depiction of a man rising from the most debased circumstances to unlimited heights, destroyed by his own hubris, Tyson emerges as a modern day version of classic Greek tragedy.

  • Sleepwalking Through the Mekong (2008) - follows L.A. based band Dengue Fever on their journey to Cambodia to perform 60s and 70s Cambodian rock n' roll in the country where it was created and very nearly destroyed. The odyssey is a homecoming for singer Chhom Nimol and a transformation for the rest of the band as they perform with master musicians and record new songs along the way. More than a rockumentary, the film serves up a portrait of modern Cambodia as the band tours through Phnom Penh and beyond, crossing a great cultural chasm with the same spirit of Cambodia's original rock pioneers. Cambodia is often synonymous with the brutal Khmer Rouge regime that left millions dead and scattered refugees around the globe. This tragedy overshadows the story of Cambodia's music scene in the 1960s and 1970s. Cambodian musicians reinvented Western rock n' roll with a distinctly Khmer flavor to create a sound that is at once familiar and completely original. Sleepwalking Through the Mekong celebrates this vibrant but long-overlooked music and reveals the power of music to weave a common thread between extremely different cultures. This film played at Indiefest or Docfest a year or two ago but I missed it. As I previously mentioned, Dengue Fever accompanied The Lost World at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival.

At the PFA, there are two programs that I'm looking forward to.

Into the Vortex: Female Voice in Film runs until August 26.

This series is an unabashed feminist love letter to a cluster of Hollywood films from the 1940s that deploy a woman’s voice in complex ways, making the viewer aware of the consciousness and deeply felt internality of the female characters even as we appreciate the trap of gorgeous surfaces.

The voices in films such as Letter from an Unknown Woman and Secret Beyond the Door are pervasive, pronounced, guiding us throughout the film, whispering in our privileged ear. In I Walked with a Zombie, Humoresque, and The Locket the voice-overs are fleeting aural connections that trouble the narrative’s coherence, undermine male privilege, and bring dissonance to the image. Many of these films foreground the connection between voice and speech; letters written by scandalous women speak unspeakable secrets, declaim repressed passion, or mock patriarchy. Other works open onto a voice outside of language—the annihilating excess of a woman’s scream, sublime invocations of a vision that sees “beyond” sight, the delirious traverse of separation between lovers, or the vortexical narrative structure that defies conventional causality and linear resolution. Often the point of view that we share with the principal character is not hers alone—it binds and flexes with that of others, evoking duality, difference, and contradiction.

A number of the films are canonical in the “woman’s film” category, others are obscure or cult gems; all have much to tell us about voice and sound in film, and how crucially these elements figure in representing female subjectivity. Settle in for summer nights of not-as-guilty-as-we-thought pleasure!

Among the films I am looking forward to in this series are:

  • Cat People (1942) - The Val Lewton–Jacques Tourneur technique relies on implication rather than explication; in a universe of shadows and off-screen shrieks lurks the poetic soul of horror. Irena (Simone Simon), a Serbian immigrant in New York, fears that she has inherited a curse that will turn her into a man-eating cat, should she become sexually aroused. This preposterous supposition is made entirely palatable in small doses of believability (it comes in on little cat feet), and by Irena’s utter earnestness and vulnerability. The threat that stalks Irena through the urban nightscape is both within her and without. The “voice off” here is the howling of the panther at the zoo, the ricochet of a feline scream, a terror and a beacon for Irina. A lyrical interpretation of female sexuality, Cat People is also several steps more evolved than King Kong in bringing the primitive home to Manhattan, for it deals with human transformation or, literally, transfiguration.

  • I Walked with a Zombie (1943) - In this mesmerizing, atmospheric Val Lewton–Jacques Tourneur cheapie set in Haiti, voodoo and family-centered psychodrama combine with surreal ease. Betsy Connell (Frances Dee), nurse to Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon), finds herself privy to sexual and colonial skeletons in the Holland family closet that have a bearing on the state of her patient. Falling in love with the man who can read her thoughts as though they were spoken aloud, Betsy has mixed loyalties when it comes to curing his glassy-eyed wife. Like Cat People’s Irena, Jessica exudes both malevolent powers and a kind of fragile powerlessness, as she is controlled by some horror within (or without). Haiti’s uneasy master-slave relations are recreated in the relationships between men and women in the Holland household. But unlike Irena, the cat’s got Jessica’s tongue: she is in a permanent sleepwalking trance. The willowy blonde in her uncanny opacity is the unlikely mirror to the hulking guardians of a repressed native culture—“speaking” of Western man’s silencing of the Other.

  • Now, Voyager (1942) - Only Hollywood could mix Walt Whitman and Sigmund Freud and come up with a first-class weepie like Now, Voyager. Bette Davis is at her best as a woman who starts out wretchedly oppressed and homely, and ends up happily oppressed and handsome. Her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper), having fashioned her into the ideal spinster-slave, is taken aback when Davis’s sensibly shod Charlotte Vale suffers a nervous breakdown, whereupon psychiatrist Claude Rains prescribes a therapeutic cruise. Charlotte sails forth, guiltily clad in a more stylish friend’s clothes, “playing” upper-crust beauty, and pulling it off—on the outside. Sufficiently freed from her complexes to fall in love with the (predictably) married Paul Henreid, Charlotte trades in her family’s neuroses for his. Without the good doctor to narrate to, Charlotte shares her inner voice, and sense of alienation from her image, with—well, us. Now, Voyager is the quintessential “transformation” film. But we’re in on Charlotte Vale/Veil’s secret: not healed, but at least in heels.

  • No Man of Her Own (1950) - Based on Cornell Woolrich’s "I Married a Dead Man", this has all the trappings of a film noir (uncertain identities, murder, forbidden desire), but the film’s use of voice cuts through noir convention to underscore an address to women in postwar America. Barbara Stanwyck, pregnant and deserted, on a track to nowhere, is mistaken for another pregnant woman who is killed in a train wreck. Desperate, confused, she impersonates the woman for the sake of her newborn, living with the wealthy in-laws whose newlywed son also died in the crash. In their tranquil villa, her voice reveals, “it’s a pleasant life...but not for us, not for us.” The narration of the story in flashback underscores its fatalism, and its pulp mystery roots, but it also draws us deeply into this character’s subjective consciousness, with its poetical, highly personal and affective speech, underwritten by a subjective camera that lingers with longing on the home she wishes were hers.

The other program at the PFA that is screening some appealling films is Secrets Beyond the Door: Treasures from the UCLA Festival of Preservation (August 7 to 30).

One of our great pleasures is sharing the work our colleagues at other film archives are doing to preserve cinema’s heritage, and so we are delighted to present this traveling showcase of films from the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s Fourteenth Festival of Preservation. From Josef von Sternberg and Frank Borzage to John Cassavetes and John Sayles, from Jazz Age Vitaphone shorts to the first Sri Lankan independent film, the festival covers a spectrum of cinema history in sparkling prints. While some of these works are undisputed classics, others are the kinds of undiscovered gems that might have languished unseen were it not for archivists’ tireless efforts. As Kenneth Turan wrote in his review of the festival in the Los Angeles Times, “What could be better than to sample the eclectic collection of rarities, oddities and one-offs that the festival manages to rescue from the far corners of the archive’s staggering holdings?”

  • Ruthless (1948) - In Edgar G. Ulmer’s remarkable body of work, the complex psycho-melodrama Ruthless is particularly worthy of rediscovery. A flashback-structured tale of a sociopath’s remorseless drive for station and wealth, with a relentless undercurrent of emotional violence, the film is often referred to as Ulmer’s Citizen Kane. The chilling tone is personified in a starkly muted, nearly expressionless performance by lead actor (and frequent screen cad) Zachary Scott. In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Ulmer said he envisioned his feature as “a Jesuitic morality play...a very bad indictment against 100 percent Americanism—as Upton Sinclair saw it.” He called the screenplay, written by blacklisted Alvah Bessie, “a dangerous script, which had to be cut (because of McCarthyism).” A contemporary review in the Los Angeles Times praised Ulmer’s “all-out direction”—an entirely apt descriptor for such uncompromising work.

  • Secret Beyond the Door (1948) - Like many popular Hollywood women’s melodramas, Secret Beyond the Door begins with a plot twist: a young woman (Joan Bennett) marries a man she barely knows and soon feels he is threatening her life or trying to drive her insane. Fritz Lang acknowledged that Hitchcock’s Rebecca was an inspiration; Gothic themes of madness mixed with Freudian psychoanalysis were particularly in vogue in films of the late 1940s. The story—in which Bennett’s husband Michael Redgrave believes that rooms have the power to cause violence, even murder—affords Lang the opportunity to indulge in the kind of Expressionist shadowscapes he had been famous for in Germany in the 1920s, as well as his longstanding interest in architecture and its metaphoric connotations. Ultimately, the film is less about psychoanalysis than about Stanley Cortez’s beautifully photographed pastiche of Gothic and Expressionist imagery.

  • A Woman Under the Influence (1974) - Over thirty years after its self-distributed release, screenwriter-director John Cassavetes’s masterpiece retains the power to unnerve with its raw, often harrowing depiction of a blue-collar Los Angeles family on the rocks. At its trembling heart, Gena Rowlands’s performance as Mabel Longhetti, wife of everyman Nick (Peter Falk) and mother of three, stands as a virtually unmatched tour de force. As a woman struggling desperately to reconcile who she thinks she should be—as wife, mother, lover, friend—with the anarchic spirit she really is, Mabel is the kind of intense, complex, and above all deeply human role that is still all too rare in Hollywood. While Rowlands and Cassavetes were both nominated for Academy Awards for their work, critics at the time were sharply divided about Cassavetes’s intent. Audiences, however, embraced the film, despite the rigorous, demanding emotional experience it offers without concession. I missed this film at the SF International Film Festival.

  • Land of the Head Hunters (1914) - Almost a decade before Robert Flaherty immortalized the Inuit people in Nanook of the North (1922), Edward S. Curtis filmed In the Land of the Head Hunters with an indigenous North American cast. Like Flaherty’s “documentary,” Head Hunters was a reflection of contemporary life among the Kwakwaka’wakw people of British Columbia as well as a fiction that combined melodramatic elements with tribal customs: Motana, the son of a chief, must battle an old medicine man for the right to marry Naida, who has been promised by her father to the tribe of the headhunters. Around this plot, Curtis stages many authentic ceremonies, including the tribe’s potlatch ceremony. The present restoration brings together the single surviving print (found in a dumpster and donated to Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History) with other clips in the UCLA Film & Television Archive to create the most complete version of the film.

  • Young America (1932) - The typical Frank Borzage film of the late 1920s and early 1930s was characterized by pictorial lyricism and a tender portrayal of young lovers who found poetry and beauty in the midst of poverty. In Young America, Borzage’s usual pair of lovers was replaced by two male school chums in their early teens, Art Simpson (Tommy Conlon) and Edward “Nutty” Beamish (Raymond Borzage, the director’s nephew). Most of the adult characters in the film consider Art “the worst boy in town,” although he seems just mischievous and impulsive—qualities outweighed by his fundamental decency and loyalty to Nutty. Borzage invests their friendship with chaste ardor and transformative power. The young actors easily outshine stars Spencer Tracy and Doris Kenyon as a married couple who take responsibility for Art after a scrape with the law.

At the YBCA, August begins with Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles which was postponed due to the wrong print being shipped, I believe.

The rest of the month at the YBCA is occupied by Beyond ESPN: An Offbeat Look at the Sports Film - While sports in cinema goes back to Eadweard Muybridge's early studies of men and women in motion, there's a surprising dearth of in-depth writing about sports in the movies. "Beyond ESPN: An Offbeat Look at the Sports Film" counters this with a varied assortment of films that don't play by the rules when it comes defining athleticism or the cinema of sports.

The series presents films on tennis, swimming, cycling, baseball, etc. Perhaps the highlight is 1973's The Cheerleaders co-presented with Midnites for Maniacs. This quintessential cheerleader sleaze-fest not only proves that scoring is more important than winning, it could be considered as the film that brought porn to the mainstream, creating the T&A genre. Hilarious hi-jinx combined with more naked girls than can be imagined, don't miss this UNCUT 35mm print (courtesy of The Alamo Drafthouse). Preceded by a slew of scintilating trailers.

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