Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Openings and Re-openings

I've previously blogged about the Cerrito Theater. Formerly the Cerrito Speakeasy, the theater re-opened under the Rialto Cinemas umbrella. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is playing there so I guess they are able to get first-run films.

I couldn't find any news on the Parkway Theater in Oakland re-opening.


The J-Pop Center from Viz Media is slated to open on August 15. Renamed New People, the August line-up has been posted. The theater kicks off with a manga-based, live-action trilogy called 20th Century Boys. I'm not familiar with the series and I'm not sure if I'll attend but I may swing by to see what the theater is like. The location is 1746 Post Street in San Francisco.


The Vortex Room has announced their August film schedule. Presented by Cosmic Hex and Kitten69.com, Cult on Film screens double features every Thursday night at 9 and 11 PM. Divine Emanuelle: Love Cult looks promising. Actually, I wonder what Kitten69.com is all about. I can't find any content on their website and their banner announces "A Brave Nude World...2007."

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Noir City Indeed!

The Roxie is going back to the well again. In May, they presented I Wake Up Dreaming: The Haunted World of the B Film Noir. In September, they are presenting Best of Columbia Noir. Given the crowds at the Roxie for I Wake Up Dreaming, I'm not surprised. I wonder how long until Eddie Muller launches a second Noir City event. Actually, he mentioned in January that Noir City and the San Francisco Film Society were teaming up for an international noir event this summer but I haven't seen anything on that.

Film Noir returns to San Francisco’s Roxie Theater with a vengeance! This past May, audiences were treated to two full weeks of rare B noirs as part of the “I Wake Up Dreaming” festival which only seemed to remind everyone that The Roxie is THE place to be for classic, high quality Film Noir.

Now, in answer to the huge demand from noir enthusiasts all over the Bay Area, Elliot Lavine has programmed a stupendous ten day fest of noir classics and curios from the famed vaults of Columbia Pictures. A total of twenty great films—all presented in beautiful 35mm studio vault prints---and none currently available on DVD.

From Friday, Sept. 11 through Tuesday, Sept. 22, audiences will thrill to the works of such esteemed directors as Nicholas Ray (Knock on Any Door), Jacques Tourneur (Nightfall), Don Siegel (The Line Up), Joseph H. Lewis (My Name is Julia Ross and So Dark the Night), Samuel Fuller (The Crimson Kimono), Robert Rossen (Johnny O’Clock), Irving Lerner (Murder by Contract and City of Fear) and many more!

Many of Columbia’s higher profile noirs have sadly slipped through the cracks due to scant or non-existent home video or DVD versions. Major directors like Fuller, Ray and Siegel are woefully under-represented in this way and odd-ball gems like Richard Quine’s steamy Pushover (1954) with Fred MacMurray and Kim Novak---Paul Wendkos’ The Burglar (1957), the remarkably strange and dark film from the novel by David Goodis starring Dan Duryea and Jayne Mansfield---an early film from William Castle, The Whistler (1944)---and Will Jason’s stylish and disturbing horror-noir hybrid Soul of a Monster (1944) are rarely shown anywhere. This is the perfect end-of-summer tonic for noir addicts who are doomed to another long, dark winter.

One difference I note between the May series and the upcoming one is that the films this September are all 35 mm prints (I may have missed a 16 mm listing). That was a sore point last May as the quality of the prints was lacking.

The full schedule is:

Johnny O’Clock (1947)
This erotically offbeat noir gave Dick Powell his most vividly hard-boiled role since his re-invention as tough guy Philip Marlowe three years earlier in Dmytryk’s Murder My Sweet. As the darkly suave proprietor of an illegal gambling den, Johnny walks a deadly tightrope between doom and redemption. A nearly forgotten gem of sizzling noir brilliance, beautifully photographed by the legendary Burnett Guffey. Also in the top-notch cast: Evelyn Keyes, Lee J. Cobb, Thomas Gomez and Ellen Drew.

Blind Spot (1947)
With a plot resembling an unhatched Cornell Woolrich tale (it isn’t), an alcoholic writer of mystery novels (hmmm...) finds himself unable to provide an alibi for himself when his publisher turns up dead in a locked room—exactly in the way he cooked up for one of his own grisly books! A highly entertaining and ingenious B noir! Starring Chester Morris, Constance Dowling, Steven Geray.

Knock on Any Door (1949)
Within a few short years of making this, his second feature, Nicholas Ray would establish himself as a cinematic master with films like In A Lonely Place, On Dangerous Ground, Johnny Guitar, and Rebel Without A Cause. This one lands him squarely in noir territory: Humphrey Bogart plays a cynical criminal lawyer hired to defend a young punk in a cop killing. As the punk, young John Derek gave birth to the line "Live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse." Also in the cast are George Macready and Allene Roberts.

Convicted (1950)
Glenn Ford stars as a man wrongfully accused of manslaughter after a barroom brawl leaves another man dead. The sympathetic DA who helped send him to prison does all he can to lighten the sentence but to no avail. Life behind bars embitters the young con and when the opportunity to join a violent, bloody break presents itself, he seizes the moment! An exciting noir drama, ripe for rediscovery! Also starring Broderick Crawford, Millard Mitchell, Dorothy Malone.

Pushover (1954)
Fred MacMurray’s other great noir film, it presents the actor a full ten years after Double Indemnity landed him in the pantheon of great noir performances. Here he’s a cop who’s assigned to shadow the mistress (the incredible Kim Novak in her first prominent screen role) of a wanted bank robber. The heat of the moment proves too much for our boy and a deadly obsession looms large on the landscape. Also in the cast: Philip Carey, Dorothy Malone and E. G. Marshall.

Drive a Crooked Road (1954)
Those who insist on thinking of Mickey Rooney only as “Andy Hardy” should take a hard look at the actor’s noir canon. From the late 40s (Killer McCoy) through the late 50s (The Last Mile) he could be equally convincing as a cold-blooded killer or a short-changed chump; psychological bookends in the noir universe. Here he gets to do a little of everything as the hardcase auto mechanic with eyes on the dame AND the prize...and the payoff is—dynamite! Also stars Dianne Foster, Kevin McCarthy and Jack Kelly.

The Whistler (1944)
Columbia produced 8 low-budget noirs for this eerie and popular anthology series between 1944 and 1948. Richard Dix appeared in the lead role in all but one of these films (he died shortly before production began), never playing the same character twice. In this, the first of a uniformly excellent batch, he plays a man hopelessly despondent over the tragic death of his wife. He briefly contemplates suicide then opts to pay a hired assassin to do the job. Fate cruelly intervenes and provides an unexpected and suspenseful climax! With Gloria Stuart and J. Carroll Naish.

The Soul of a Monster (1944)
An ultra-strange hybrid of noir and horror makes for a highly rewarding film with deeper, more spiritual messaging than normally required of a sixty-minute B picture. When a beloved physician lies terminally ill at death’s door, a mysterious woman arrives, hastening his miraculous recovery amidst the suspicious aura of satanic skullduggery! A visually thrilling and seriously misunderstood gem of supernatural noir! Starring George Macready, Rose Hobart, Jeanne Bates and Jim Bannon.

So Dark the Night (1946)
In the first half of this double-bill tribute to director Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy, The Big Combo), a noted Parisian detective on vacation becomes involved in the investigation of a string of local murders. Memorable touches on a small scale highlight this twisted tale of passion under darkly sunny French skies. Starring Steven Geray, Micheline Cheirel and Eugene Borden.

My Name is Julia Ross (1945)
After toiling for a number of years on poverty row in a succession of B westerns, East Side Kids comedies and Bela Lugosi horror films, Lewis landed at Columbia and delivered this breakthrough B classic of gothic noir right out of the gate. A young woman takes position in a shuddery seaside mansion only to awaken the following morning to an unspeakable nightmare! Starring Nina Foch, George Macready and Dame May Whitty.

The Line Up (1958)
Don Siegel, the incendiary director of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the Lee Marvin version of The Killers, the first Dirty Harry movie AND Private Hell 36 (one of the big rediscoveries of this past May’s Roxie Noir program) kicks out a tough police noir filmed right here in San Francisco! Loosely based on a popular TV show at the time, the film leaves it in the dust. Starring Eli Wallach, Warner Anderson, Richard Jaeckel, Emile Meyer and Robert Keith.

The Sniper (1952)
With deadly aim, a deranged lone gunman with a sick desire to kill women is stalking the dark streets of San Francisco! An intense investigation leads to a nerve-wracking and fateful conclusion! A gripping, suspenseful tour de force from the director of Murder My Sweet and Crossfire. Starring Adolph Menjou, Arthur Franz, Gerald Mohr and Marie Windsor. Directed by Edward Dmytryk.

Between Midnight and Dawn (1950)
An exciting and realistic depiction of everyday cops doing their jobs. Screen veterans Edmond O’Brien and Mark Stevens share an LAPD patrol car and their nightly routines can sometimes become highly dangerous. One of the earliest and, despite not being well-known today, most influential films of the police procedural type. Also starring Gale Storm, Donald Buka, Gale Robbins, and Roland Winters.

The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)
Amidst the teeming atmosphere of the New York underworld a life and death race is on to locate the carriers of a deadly disease! This stunning docu-noir makes great use of its location photography to create a convincingly menacing world. A much better film than the similarly themed, bigger budgeted Panic In The Streets from around the same time. Starring Charles Korvin, Evelyn Keyes, William Bishop, and Dorothy Malone.

The Crimson Kimono (1959)
While it might seem that this sharply drawn noir crime film is about nothing more than the murder of an LA nightclub stripper, it’s important to remember that this is a Samuel Fuller film and the concerns of the director run somewhat deeper than what appears to be on the surface. In this case it’s the smoldering possibilities of interracial romance in a cold and unforgiving world. A masterpiece of mood and malice. Starring Victoria Shaw, Glenn Corbett, James Shigeta, and Anna Lee.

Screaming Mimi (1958)
Noir doesn’t get much weirder and whacked-out than this baffling psychodrama about a troubled young woman who, after surviving a brutal attack, becomes the prime suspect in a series of bizarre ritual murders. An alcoholic reporter tries to clear the whole mess up. The charged atmosphere in this steamy melodrama makes for unusually provocative entertainment, and how! Based on a novel by Fredric Brown. Starring Philip Carey, Anita Ekberg, Harry Townes, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Red Norvo.

The Burglar (1957)
Back by popular demand! Another sizzling noir adapted from the darkly twisted imagination of David Goodis. An aging thief forms an unholy alliance with a mysterious young woman and a bizarre gang of crooks. Resembling nothing less than the ironically imitative films of the emerging French New Wave around this time, The Burglar is the real McCoy! Starring Dan Duryea, Jayne Mansfield, Martha Vickers, and Mickey Shaughnessy.

Nightfall (1957)
From the director of the classic noir Out of the Past comes this ultra-stylish noir thriller about an innocent man caught between the cops and a pair of sadistic killers in a mad search for stolen money. Starring Aldo Ray, Anne Bancroft, Brian Keith, and James Gregory. Screenplay adapted by Sterling Silliphant from the novel by low-rent paperback specialist David Goodis. Directed by Jacques Tourneur.

Murder By Contract (1958)
Vince Edwards is chillingly real as a pitiless hired assassin who has second thoughts when his latest assignment is revealed to be a woman. An idiosyncratic study of a man without a soul—rendered in a baffling, near-abstract beat style. The director only made two features before drifting into television and finally relative obscurity. Also featuring Herschel Bernardi, Caprice Toriel and Philip Pine. Directed by Irving Lerner.

City of Fear (1959)
Back too is this amazing nuclear noir again starring rough and ready Vince Edwards—this time as a desperate escaped con with a parcel of stolen “radioactive material” thinking its actually heroin! How many junkies will be infected by this bum stash before he’s taken down?! A wild and uninhibited noir curio from the tail end of the cycle. Also starring John Archer, Lyle Talbot and Steven Ritch. Directed by Irving Lerner.


Without checking my records, I can state that of the films presented, I have previously seen The Crimson Kimono, City of Fear, Nightfall and The Burglar.

Blind Spot screened at this year's Noir City but I missed it so it's nice to have a second chance to see it.

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.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

In the Realm of Oshima

The Nagisa Oshima retrospective (In the Realm of Oshima) recently finished at the PFA. The series ran May 29 to July 18. It consisted of 25 screenings of 23 unique programs. Of the 23 programs, I previously watched Boy, The Ceremony and Violence at Noon at last autumn's Cinema Japan: A Wreath for Madame Kawakita program.

I missed Pleasures of the Flesh and Empire of Passion because it conflicted with the Saturday of the Silent Film Festival. I missed Band of Ninja and 100 Years of Japanese Cinema due to having to work late those nights.

That leaves 16 programs that I was able to catch.

Cruel Story of Youth; Japanese with subtitles; (1960)
Diary of a Shinjuku Thief; Japanese with subtitles; (1968)
A Town of Love and Hope; Japanese with subtitles; (1959)
Diary of Yunbogi; Japanese with subtitles; 30 minute short film; (1965)
Death by Hanging; Japanese with subtitles; (1968)
Night and Fog in Japan; Japanese with subtitles; (1960)
The Catch; Japanese with subtitles; (1961)
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence with David Bowie, Tom Conti and Beat Takeshi; English & Japanese with subtitles; (1983)
Shiro Amakusa, the Christian Rebel; Japanese with subtitles; (1962)
The Sun’s Burial; Japanese with subtitles; (1960)
Three Resurrected Drunkards; Japanese with subtitles; (1968)
A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Song; Japanese with subtitles; (1967)
In the Realm of the Senses; Japanese with subtitles; (1976)
The Man Who Left His Will on Film; Japanese with subtitles; (1970)
Dear Summer Sister; Japanese with subtitles; (1972)
Double Suicide: Japanese Summer; Japanese with subtitles; (1967)
Gohatto with Beat Takeshi; Japanese with subtitles; (2000)

Let me start by saying that the Cinema Japan series screened the best of Oshima's filmography. Boy and to a lesser extent The Ceremony had traditional narrative structures. Call me unsophisticated but I like movies that have a narrative structure.

Oshima seems to have a number of issues that occupied his thoughts - mistreatment/racism towards Koreans, socialism, disillusionment with socialism, sex, Western influence on Japan, death and homosexuality. That's quite lineup and but frequently Oshima engages in Brechtian techniques. Not being a film or theater critic, the term "Brechtian" makes me head for the exit door. The most succinct definition of Brechtian that I'm aware of is making the audience aware that they are watching a representation of reality as opposed to traditional film making where the purpose is to create images that allow the audience to suspend disbelief and view the film as reality.

Not surprisingly, when Oshima hews to traditional narrative techniques, I enjoy his films. His talents as a director are clearly evident in all his films but the films "based on real stories" are the one I tend to enjoy the most. Boy was based on a true story as was In the Realm of the Senses which vied for my favorite of the films I saw during the series.

In the Realm of the Senses is hardcore porn. There were no "money shots" like modern day porn but there was a scene in which an actress seemed to have a man's penis in her mouth and spits out (what appears to be) ejaculate. That's just one of many copious sex scenes. I think Oshima repeatedly filmed these sex scenes to numb the audience to full frontal (male & female) nudity. The climax of the film involves a fairly graphic castration. Despite that titillating description, the film explored the obsessively co-dependent nature of the couple's relationship. The woman's raw sexuality is the driving force of the plot.

Another favorite was Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence which is likely Oshima best known film among Western audiences. Another film based on real events, Oshima examines the relationship between POWs and their captors as well as Japanese vs Western masculine ideals with a healthy dose of homoeroticism layered on. Buffeted by an oddly effective xylophone score, the film bounces along from one brutality to the next - Takeshi as the brutish sergeant, Bowie failing to come to the aid of hunchback younger brother (in flashback), and most famously, Bowie being buried up to his neck and left to dehydrate in the hot sun.

Oshima's debut effort, A Town of Love and Hope is, to the best of my knowledge, purely fictional but thoroughly enjoyable. Clocking in at a trim 62 minutes, the film's title is deliberately misleading. The studio was worried about the cynical views on class divisions that the film espoused. The plot involves a teenage boy repeatedly selling a homing pigeon but after seeing 19 films by Oshima, the film is more interesting for what it foreshadows in Oshima's career. For some reason, Oshima frequently uses shots of the Tokyo Tower in the background. More significantly, Oshima repeatedly returns, over his career, to two narrative devices - scammers and provocatively precocious teenage girls. In The Sun’s Burial, they run a blood donation scam; in Boy, it's a car accident scam; in Cruel Story of Youth, they run a variation of the Murphy scam (I even surprised myself by knowing that term; thank you NYPD Blue). In Dear Summer Sister, the precocious teenager (14, I believe) consorts with the demimonde in Okinawa while searching for her half-brother; in Double Suicide: Japanese Summer, she's 17 and offering to every guy within earshot, etc.

Likely his final film (Oshima is 77 years old and has suffered a numerous strokes), Gohatto reunites Oshima with Beat Takeshi in this tale of gay samurai. I am reminded of a film (perhaps I'm conflating multiple films) whose name I cannot place. I think it was Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can't Help It but in the film the woman is absolutely irresistible to every man she meets. Ryuhei Matsuda's samurai character has the same effect on every guy he meets. Straight, gay or in between, they all come under his spell. If not consciously drawn to him, then unconsciously. It gets a quite funny to see every samurai drawn to him or at least be perceived by his peers as being drawn to him. Apparently quite common among the samurai class, homosexuality is rarely depicted in the cinema. Oshima infuses his lead character (Kono) as man of great sword skills but little awareness of the effect he has on others...or does he?

My final word on Oshima is that my opinion of his films is similar to that of Jean-Luc Godard, the French director he was frequently compared with. I like some of his films but as he ventured to more didactic films delivered in less traditional structures, I found his work less than satisfying. All his films have some absurdist moments or clever camera work or blocking but I'm not informed enough on the history of the Japanese Communist Party, mutual security pacts between the US & Japan post WWII or the socioeconomic conditions of that period that gave rise to leftist movements to fully appreciate many of his works. Still, I could enthusiastically recommend a half-dozen of his films off the top of my head - Boy, The Ceremony, A Town of Love and Hope, Gohatto, Dear Summer Sister, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, etc.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

2009 San Francisco Silent Film Festival Recap

The 2009 San Francisco Silent Film Festival ran from Friday, July 10 to Sunday, July 12 at the Castro Theater. I saw 9 of the 12 programs. The programs I missed were Amazing Tales From the Archives, Underworld and Oswald The Lucky Rabbit. Underworld, directed by Josef von Sternberg, screened earlier this year as part of the PFA's von Sternberg retrospective. Amazing Tales From the Archives is a free program that the festival produces every year. It features clips from restored films and other "found" footage. I've seen it in years past but decided to skip it this year. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was a series of animated short films produced by Disney in the late 1920's. The character predated Mickey Mouse but Disney lost control of it due to legal issues. The program was narrated by film critic Leonard Maltin. It would have been nice to see but it was the first program on Sunday and I wanted to go to the gym that morning so I passed.


First, let me say it was strange not to see festival founder Stephen Salmons at the festival. The reasons for his departure from the Silent Film Festival remains unstated. The only information I could find was from a Mick LaSalle podcast when he stated his departure was voluntary and planned. He was vague about what his future plans are. LaSalle asked (suggested) that he treat this as a sabbatical and that he would return to the festival at some point. Salmons demurred.

I was surprised that Salmons wasn't the emcee like previous years as he seems well-suited for that role. On the podcast, Salmons said he would be at the festival as an audience member although I did not see him. During the McRoskey Mattress raffle drawing, the announcer thanked Salmons ("wherever he is") as if his contact with the festival staff was nil.

Salmons stepped down as Artistic Director and I also noticed his name is not listed among the Board of Directors. Anita Monga introduced several films and her self-announced title is Acting Artistic Director. Certainly, a programmer of her stature merits permanent hire but perhaps she didn't want the job permanently or maybe there is an expectation that Salmons will return.


Feature Films
The Gaucho starring Douglas Fairbanks and Lupe Velez; cameo by Mary Pickford; silent with intertitles; (1927)
Bardelys The Magnificent starring John Gilbert; directed by King Vidor; silent with intertitles; (1926)
Wild Rose; silent with Chinese intertitles; (1932)
The Wind starring Lilian Gish; silent with intertitles; (1928)
Aelita, Queen of Mars; silent with English & Cyrillic intertitles; (1924)
Erotikon; silent with English & Czech intertitles; (1929)
So's Your Old Man starring W.C. Fields; directed by Gregory La Cava; silent with intertitles; (1926)
Fall of the House of Usher; silent with French intertitles; (1928)
Lady of the Pavements starring Lupe Velez; directed by D.W. Griffith; silent with intertitles; (1929)

Short Films by American Biograph
They Would Elope starring Mary Pickford; directed by D.W. Griffith; silent with intertitles; 6 minutes; (1909)
Their First Divorce Case starring Mack Sennett and Fred Mace; directed by Mack Sennett; silent with intertitles; (1911)
The Lesser Evil starring Mae Marsh; directed by D.W. Griffith; silent with intertitles; 17 minutes; (1912)
The Barber's Queer Customer; (1900)
The Trick That Failed starring Mary Pickford; directed by D.W. Griffith; silent with intertitles; 7 minutes; (1909)

Short Films (not American Biograph)
Fall of the House of Usher; silent with intertitles; 13 minutes; (1928)
Color outtakes of The Gaucho starring Mary Pickford; (1927)

Live Accompanists
Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
Donald Sosin
Stephen Horne
Dennis James
Phillip Carli
Joanna Seaton (vocalist)

I might have forgotten a short film. According to the program, The Barber's Queer Customer was scheduled to precede Fall of the House of Usher but instead it preceded Erotikon. Anita Monga announced that the short film scheduled to precede Fall of the House of Usher was a 16mm print and the Castro does not have a 16mm projector. Piano accompanist Stephen Horne suggested the short film version of Fall of the House of Usher. So Fall of the House of Usher followed Fall of the House of Usher. I think the 16mm film was Getting Even.

Getting Even and The Trick That Failed were scheduled to precede The Wind but I only recall seeing The Trick That Failed.

I don't know if all these program changes were due to misprints in the schedule or the staff shuffling the films at the last minute.


I've become a fan of silent cinema. Certainly, seeing silent films in the fabulous Castro Theater (which could have screened the films during their original releases) with world class accompanists enhances the experience.

I thought the festival was a little flat compared to last year. Last year, I greatly enjoyed Her Wild Oat and The Unknown. Nothing stood head and shoulders above the rest but I enjoyed all the films with one exception.

The Gaucho is possibly the first Douglas Fairbanks action films I've seen. I can understand his tremendous popularity now. He was charismatic beyond words. In this film, he made lighting a cigarette a feat to behold. He twirled bolos and bedded Lupe Velez; I'm not sure which was more dangerous. The film was great fun and modern in its pacing.

Bardelys The Magnificent is famous for being lost. For 80 years, there were no known prints of the film until one was found in France. Even then, the third reel was missing so it was screened with still photos. Starring silent film superstar John Gilbert, Bardelys is set in 18th century France and stars Gilbert as the charming lothario who is forced to romance chaste revolutionary to win a wager.

Wild Rose was a Chinese film. It reminded me of an Anna Mae Wong film called Pavement Butterfly. The essence of the stories is that a woman (usually poor and not of the right class) falls in love with a wealthy man (typically a slumming dilettante/artiste). The man's family objects but he chooses love over his family's condemnations. Cut off from his wealth, the couple live in bliss until the cruel realities of poverty strike. Then the woman makes a pact to leave the man if his family will resolve his financial/legal problems. It is usually a sad ending; in this case, the Japanese invade Manchuria and everyone goes off to war. Wang Renmei delivered a charming performance.

The Wind was a technically stunning film starring Lilian Gish. Filmed in the 120° heat of the Mojave desert and the eponymous effect created with large airplane propellers, Thee Wind was an arduous shoot. It was exhausting to see the actors fight the constant blowing sand. The film was about a woman's travails and eventual descent into madness. I would have enjoyed it more if they had not tacked on a happy ending that diverged from the source novel. Gish claims that they shot a more appropriate ending that conformed to the novel but focus groups disliked it. So the studio (MGM), shot a an ending the woman finds happiness by opening her heart to her husband.

Aelita, Queen of Mars was the only film of the festival I did not enjoy. The film was an early and influential science fiction tale from the USSR. The dual story arcs involve a Soviet inventor whose wife is having an affair which is just a symptom of the larger societal problems besieging the young country in the aftermath of the revolution. The second plot line involves the Martians who observe earth and the protagonist in particular. When the inventor finally gets to Mars, it is revealed to all be a dream but not before unseen hands hammer out a sickle and a rousing patriotic song closes the film. Silly, predictable and tedious but somewhat interesting for creating the outer space stereotypes that would take hold in the US starting with the Flash Gordon & Buck Rogers serials, the best part of the film was Dennis James and Mark Goldstein's live score which included the Mighty Wurlitzer, a theremin and Buchla Lightning Wands.

Erotikon was a Czech film about a couple who couple for one night & then go their separate ways. The man is a real "player" while the woman is less experienced but she gains experience within 9 months of their encounter. She eventually gets married and moves to the same city as her one-time lover. Of course, she has to run into him and they can't decide whether or not to renew their affair. This film was all about the reaction shots - an [first?] orgasm, a childbirth, a stone-faced midwife, a cuckolded husband, etc. This film was my favorite of the festival.

So's Your Old Man was a WC Fields vehicle that was amusing. I was having trouble sleeping that weekend. I was worried that I would doze off during the films. I stayed awake throughout all the films except for a few minutes during So's Your Old Man. That's not say it wasn't funny but Fields certainly was a silent film star that made a successful transition to talkies and aged well. He was a well-preserved 46 when he made Old Man but I prefer him 10 to 15 years older with a bulbous nose and nasally twang. I found Alice Joyce to be quite beautiful. Apparently she didn't make it out of the silent era. William "Shorty" Blanche, who was Fields' stage partner, yucks it up as the caddy.

The Fall of the House of Usher looked years ahead of its time. Influenced by German Expressionists, the film also includes avante garde surrealism that would eventually become cliche but was cutting edge at the time. An excellent score by Stephen Horne added to the ambiance.

The final film of the festival was Lady of the Pavements directed by DW Griffith. I'm not sure who had top billing but Lupe Velez was definitely the star. Made immediately after The Gaucho, Velez charm and charisma were on full display. She wrestles Franklin Pangborn to the ground (like a Mexican Spitfire), she performs a brassy song and dance number in a cabaret (with a great smoking poodle sign), she looks beautiful after her Eliza Doolittlish transformation and she made my eyes water up after her humiliation at the hands of the wonderfully bitchy Jetta Goudal. Apparently, Goudal & Velez despised each other in real life and had to be kept separated except for their scenes together - it shows in their performance. Who the heck is Jetta Goudal? I don't know either but I wish she would have made more films. The Dutch actress made 18 films; most of them between 1925 and 1927. She has no credits after 1932 (age 41) but would live for another 53 years; eventually passing at age 93. William Boyd, who would make a career out of playing Hopalong Cassidy, made the most of his supporting role as Goudal's and then Velez's lover.


My final thoughts -

I can see now that Douglas Fairbanks was the real deal. He was the prototypical movie star.

The concept of women as victims was on full display this festival. Most of the feature plots were some variation on this theme; particularly women sacrificing themselves for their true love.

I couldn't take my eyes off Lupe Velez whenever she was on the screen. She exuded energy and feminine sexuality.

Some of the movie staples date back to the silent era - science fiction and horror films recycled the same schtick for 40 or 50 years.

The musicians that accompany the silent films are spectacularly talented. Maltin mentioned the most silent film accompanist improvise the score for the short films. I did notice that Dennis James, who I have heard several times, falls back to a few standards. I most recently heard James accompany Birth of a Nation at this year's Cinequest. I'm positive I heard a few identical bars between Aelita and Birth of a Nation. I think when James needs a rousing chorus, he falls back to this coda. That's not to take anything away from James because he is a world-class accompanist. I like to think I've become familiar enough with silent films to pick up on some trends.

There was a musician from festivals past that I miss. I enjoy Clark Wilson's work but he was not on the program this time.

If I had seen it at the festival, I believe Underworld would have been my favorite film of the festival.

The reader for the French version of Fall of the House of Usher is a little flat. I don't know if he is translating on the fly but his delivery was unintentionally funny at time. It was more of a distraction than anything. No one goes to a silent film to be amused by the intertitle reader. When the intertitle is a name or the same word as in English, it's not necessary to read the text aloud. Also, if one cannot sufficiently master the intonations to show fear, anger, desperation, etc. maybe a professional actor reading from a prepared script/translation is better.


Finally, the annual Silent Film Festival Winter Event was announced. It will be held on December 12. Presumably it will be held at the Castro Theater.

Brian Darr mention on his blog that Fairbanks The Black Pirate is screening at the California Theater (San Jose) on Friday, August 7 with Dennis James on organ.