Monday, January 4, 2010

Capra, Ozu, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Val Lewton, Jacques Tati and Post 1950's Musicals

January and February are shaping up nicely with a lot of film screenings that interest me.

I previously mentioned the two series at the Mechanics' Institute and the 10 days of Noir City. The San Francisco Independent Film Festival (Indiefest) is running from February 4 to 17.

I could fit those screenings in with relatively ease if not from the programs at PFA. They have several series that interest in January & February. Foremost is a series of Frank Capra's early films.

Over the years, interest in Frank Capra’s work, and his critical reputation, have ebbed and flowed, usually due to changing sociopolitical currents in the United States and their effect on public perception of his work. What is now known as “Capraesque” filmmaking is generally, and reductively, regarded as a form of sentimental populism, but Capra’s work in fact encompasses a far wider range of emotion, social criticism, and genre experimentation than is usually recognized. Because of our current economic collapse, with its many disturbing echoes of the Great Depression, Capra (1897–1991) seems timely all over again, as the first film in this series, American Madness (1932, about a run on a bank), demonstrates with startling immediacy.

Much of Capra’s early work—the films the Sicilian immigrant made before the Capraesque label was applied in his heyday during the New Deal—has largely been inaccessible to most filmgoers, preventing a deeper understanding of his legacy. Many of the films he directed between 1927, when he came to Columbia Pictures, and 1934, when he made his Oscar-winning and career-changing It Happened One Night, have not been available on home video. Now Sony Pictures, which owns the twenty-five films Capra made for Columbia, has painstakingly worked with both vault material and foreign prints preserved by collectors to reassemble and restore his rich and diverse early period. This series showcases many of these little-known gems, showing Capra’s explorations of various genres before he found his familiar niche. The programs also include rare short films Capra directed in the San Francisco Bay Area; two short comedies he cowrote as a Hollywood gag man; and his first feature as director, The Strong Man (1926), starring Harry Langdon.

Among the 15 films PFA is screening, the following catch my attention.

The Way of the Strong; silent with intertitles; (1928) - So grotesque it verges on the operatic, The Way of the Strong, written by William Counselman and Peter Milne, was described by Columbia as the story of “the world’s ugliest man, who can bear anything except the sight of his own face in a mirror.” Mitchell Lewis plays “Handsome” Williams, a hulking gangster whose misshapen face is crisscrossed with scars. The beauty underlying his brutish exterior is shown by his tenderness toward Nora (Alice Day), a blind violinist who works in his cafe and falls in love with him, thinking he is truly handsome. But when she realizes for the first time how he looks, she recoils. The Way of the Strong includes one of many suicide attempts in Capra films, but this is one of only two that succeed (the other is in The Bitter Tea of General Yen), and it is a particularly startling ending for a supposedly “optimistic” director.

The Bitter Tea of General Yen starring Barbara Stanwick; (1933) - I have long wanted to see this film. Subtle eroticism and splendid exoticism: an atypical Capra classic, set in China in the midst of civil war. Barbara Stanwyck plays a prim New England missionary who falls in the thrall of a ruthless but noble Chinese bandit (Swedish actor Nils Asther in a painstaking makeup job), who kidnaps her and keeps her in his summer palace. Controversial in its day for its depiction of interracial romance, Bitter Tea remained one of Capra’s “pet” films—what he called “Art with a capital A.” And it is indeed reminiscent of the films of Josef von Sternberg, with its exalted visuals and glowing lighting by Joseph Walker creating a ninety-minute “dissolve” between dream and reality. It is the dream of a woman trying to see herself through General Yen’s idealistic vision of women as “beautiful fruit trees,” the reality being far more sexual than that. Stanwyck embodies the troubling contradiction by distancing herself from it in a cool performance.

Submarine; silent with intertitles; (1928) - Jack Cohn persuaded his partners at Columbia to go head-to-head with the major studios in 1928 by making an A picture, Submarine, an adventure story suggested by two actual disasters involving Navy submarines. The biggest moneymaker in the young company’s history, it was also a critical success, establishing Capra as a versatile and important director. “Frank R. Capra’s direction is especially clever,” wrote Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times, “for not only has he attended to the action of the story, but he has also obtained from his players infinitely better characterization than one is apt to see on the screen, especially in a melodrama.” Submarine also was Columbia’s, and Capra’s, first tentative venture into sound (although here we screen a restored silent version). Capra was convinced that sound was “an enormous step forward. I wasn’t at home in silent films; I thought it was very strange to stop and put a title on the screen and then come back to the action...I don’t think I could have gone very far in silent pictures—at least not so far as I did go with sound.”

I am a sucker for submarine films. Some of my favorites include Run Silent, Run Deep, The Hunt for Red October, Crimson Tide and The Enemy Below. I didn't even mention Das Boot because I haven't seen it all the way through. Submarine reminds me that there is a rare submarine film (directed by John Ford no less) that I have read about. The film is called Men Without Women (1930). The film is not related the Ernest Hemingway novel by the same name.


Another highlight is the PFA screening of a two film series called Masters of Asian Cinema. Screening on February 19 and 20, the features are:

That Night Wife directed by Yasujiro Ozu; silent with intertitles; (1930) - A crime melodrama based on a Western-style magazine story and inspired by Fritz Lang and American thrillers. Ozu tests the conventions as he employs them, “drawing on thriller iconography for its own sake” and thereby distancing himself from the genre, as David Bordwell has noted. The film is set in a twelve-hour period. A commercial artist of meager means is driven to robbery in order to provide medicine for his critically ill daughter. As the film opens he is being pursued by the police. After a series of diversions, he hails a gypsy cab that delivers him to his door—but the night is young. Much of the delight of this film is in the play of visuals and the use of space, from the taxicab with its mirrors to the family’s cluttered apartment, where most of the action takes place.

A City of Sadness directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien; starring Tony Leung; Chinese & Japanese with subtitles; (1989) - Hou Hsiao-hsien’s cinema draws comparisons to Yasujiro Ozu’s with its ability to turn the ordinary—homes and hallways, a family dining together—into the extraordinary, repeating shots so that a lived-in space becomes as familiar as the characters within it. Hou’s 1989 epic A City of Sadness has been called not only his crowning film, but “one of the supreme masterworks of contemporary cinema” (Jonathan Rosenbaum). Following the Lin family from 1945 to 1949, a momentous historical period encompassing Taiwan’s independence from Japan and its secession from the mainland, the film courted controversy (and became a box-office hit) by addressing the then-taboo subject of the “February 28th Incident,” when the Nationalist government met a popular uprising with a brutal crackdown. Hou’s particular genius lies in reflecting such large-scale social and political events in minute, highly personal moments: children being born, conversations among friends and family, goodbyes and hellos exchanged on the same hilly streets as times, and governments, change.


PFA is also screening a Val Lewton series. I Walked with a Zombie has screened three times in the past year. One at the Stanford Theater in July. Again at the PFA's Into the Vortex series (also in July). And now on January 30 as part of the Lewton series. The film isn't really that good either.

If you make the screen dark enough, the mind’s eye will read anything into it you want! We’re great ones for dark patches.” —V al Lewton

Rarely do we praise the producer. But in Val Lewton’s case the praise should be profuse for a cluster of creepy cheapies he produced in the early forties, notable for heavily shadowed psychic landscapes, arousing unease through an excess of archaic suggestion. Originally a scriptwriter, Lewton went from anonymous labors at MGM to the head of the horror unit at RKO in 1942. Once the esteemed studio that had produced classics like King Kong and Citizen Kane, by the time of Lewton’s involvement RKO had opted for “entertainment not genius.” Little did they know that their enfant terror would transform formulaic ideas and impoverished means into a well-crafted surplus of psychological enthrallment. Beginning with Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, Lewton overwhelmed a poverty-stricken mandate—to make seventy-five-minute features for $150,000, using titles supplied by the studio—by assembling a remarkable coven of collaborators who could conjure his eerie vision: directors Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, and Robert Wise; writers Ardel Wray and DeWitt Bodeen; and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. Where most low-budget Bs felt obliged to actually illustrate the lurking horror, RKO K.O.s such as The Leopard Man, Isle of the Dead, and The Body Snatcher left instead inky insinuations that beckoned primeval folklore, reptilian instinct, and emotional monstrosities. This series sheds some much-deserved light on producer Val Lewton—he’s been in the shadows too long.

Based on Cat People and Zombie, I'm a little cautious about expecting too much but I guess Lewton's films were better than the schlock that was being served up at the time.

Youth Runs Wild (1944) - “Orgy of youth!” screams one of the headlines blazoned across the opening of Youth Runs Wild, but the film that follows is more fretful than orgiastic in its treatment of teens and their troubles. This rare Lewton venture into straight social realism, cowritten by novelist John Fante, portrays an America where “normal” family life has been dangerously destabilized by World War II. When parents are either irresponsible or absent, building bombs on the graveyard shift or drinking the nights away, kids are left to find their own paths to adulthood; a few wrong turns lead quickly to melodrama. Studio interference steered the film toward overt propaganda, and ultimately caused Lewton to disown the production. Still, apart from the usual kitsch attractions of a JD exploitation flick, Youth Runs Wild offers an intriguing view of the war at home.

The Leopard Man directed by Jacques Tourneur; (1943) - Adapted from a Cornell Woolrich novel, The Leopard Man is a strange hybrid of serial-killer thriller and Southwestern fairy tale. Something deadly prowls the desert arroyos and shadowed sidewalks of a New Mexico town. Is it the panther escaped from a courtyard nightclub, or has some other primal horror been unleashed? An episodic structure that passes from one victim to the next is tied together by Lewton’s pointedly oblique use of imagery and sound: bestial roars issuing from a passing train, a strolling dancer’s castanets persistently rattling like nerves, a drooping branch or a discarded cigarette signaling doom. As critic Manny Farber wrote, the film gives “the creepy impression that human beings and ‘things’ are interchangeable...and that both are pawns of a bizarre and terrible destiny.”

The Ghost Ship (1943) - This beautifully crafted thriller emerges from relative obscurity (it was withheld for years as the subject of a specious plagiarism suit) as one of Lewton’s most impressive productions. Mysterious deaths on board the ship Altair lead a young and trusting junior officer (Russell Wade) into the dank waters of doubt and despair; he is forced to reassess his captain (Richard Dix), with whom he had closely identified, as a neurotic despot cruelly enacting his own malignant fears. A Hitchcockian theme of transference of guilt is skillfully developed in Lewton’s haunting, atmospheric language: the image of an enormous iron hook, wildly swaying in a nighttime storm, is the stuff of nightmares. Mark Robson’s direction in this film (far less so in The Seventh Victim or Bedlam) reflects his apprenticeship with Welles in fluid tracking shots, silhouettes, low angles on foggy set-ups that are perhaps more heavy handed than the delicate, almost transcendental Lewton–Tourneur vision.


The Kids Are Alright: Post-Fifties Musicals and the Rise of Youth Culture looks to be a fun series. Among the films that I want to see are:

Paint Your Wagon starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin and Jean Seberg; (1969) - It all begins here, in the grubby Sierra foothills of Gold Rush–era California. “No Name City” is a ramshackle roost for greedy men, chanting “gold, Gold, GOLD!” But as unruly and manic as this mining town might be, it isn’t lawless, just ungoverned, a haven for free spirits like Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin, reprising the irascible coot of Cat Ballou) who melodiously declares he was “born under a wand’rin’ star.” His star, though, is hitched to Elizabeth (a nicely ripening Jean Seberg) and Pardner (lanky looker Clint Eastwood) in a bashfully bawdy sixties ménage, amidst a musical menagerie by Lerner and Loewe. The songs are as big as a prospector’s dreams: “They Call the Wind Maria,” “Gold Fever,” “The Best Things,” “A Million Miles Away Behind the Door,” the last a paean to home ownership. A boisterous bonanza of a musical, Paint Your Wagon was updated from a more prudish fifties original, adding its liberated frontier threesome in a long summer of love.

The Music Man starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones; (1962) - River City, Iowa: an American idyll in 1912. But there’s “trouble in River City,” and it rhymes with hormones. Said secretions are from both the city’s youth and itinerant salesman Professor Harold Hill (the sublimely suited Robert Preston), who’s got his eye on Marian (Shirley Jones), the town’s liberal librarian. A huckster selling musical instruments, Hill has got to drum up the disasters of youthful desire, then perfectly pitch the remedy, a marching band of countless trombones and brassy uniforms. The Music Man is brimming with memorable music, including the pre-rap rollick “Rock Island,” the alarming “Trouble,” that tongue-twisting tune “Gary, Indiana,” the lithe love song “Till There Was You,” and, of course, the blustering band number, “Seventy-Six Trombones.” Meredith Willson’s bit of Americana laps up the folksy wisdom and popular tunes of the period, high-stepping from start to finish, but there is trouble simmering below the surface. Is it a loss of innocence? Or a shift in the marketplace? The Professor can only offer a temporary band-aid.

Bye Bye Birdie starring Janet Leigh, Ann-Margret & Dick Van Dyke; (1963) - In March 1958, Elvis Presley was drafted. Two years later, writers Charles Strouse and Lee Adams drafted fifteen songs charting the delirium that descends upon Sweet Apple, Ohio, when Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson) arrives for his parting kiss before entering the army. Conrad, as you might guess, is a jelly-rolled rocker, an “honestly sincere” parody of the King himself. The bobbysoxer chosen to share that last kiss is Kim, a fifteen-year-old blossom played by Ann-Margret in full bloom. Bye Bye Birdie wants it both ways: focusing on lil’ Kim pursued by teen bopper Bobby Rydell, the musical also gives adulthood equal time with the riveting Rosie (Janet Leigh) and her beau Albert (Dick Van Dyke). The youngsters get that paean to lip-lock “One Last Kiss” and a hymn to hormones, “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” while the parents get the death of attitude in “Put On a Happy Face” and a declaration of alienation in “Kids.” This boisterous “bye bye” was also a big hello for Ann-Margret.


The final program tht interests me is a Jacques Tati retrospective. I'm not familiar with Tati. I may have heard his name but when I read the synopses, I can't recall seeing any of his films. His works are praised by many including Hell on Frisco Bay.

“Comedy is the summit of logic.”—Jacques Tati

He is best remembered as Monsieur Hulot: with his jutting pipe and storklike walk, addressing the world at an acute angle, Jacques Tati’s signature character is almost as iconic as Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Born Jacques Tatischeff, Tati (1907–1982) got his start in the 1930s music hall with humorous sketches miming various sports, and his talent for physical comedy, embodied in the immortal Hulot, is one of his great contributions to film history. Even greater, though, is his exacting work behind the camera. Tati has been described as the cinema’s foremost antimodern modernist; his precisely arranged images and inventive soundtracks underline the alienation and oddity of everyday twentieth-century life. Satire aside, the films—presented here in new prints—are full of the pleasures of observation, of watching and listening. As Jonathan Rosenbaum said of Playtime, Tati “turns the very acts of seeing and hearing into a form of dancing.”

Several of the films in the series are also screening at the YBCA in January as well.

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