Monday, January 3, 2011

Hell On Frisco Bay Delivers Bad News, Introduces Me To Socialism and Promotes a DVD Screening of Eisenstein

I don't read other people's blogs too much. I am an incorrigible list keeper. This blog is really a forum for me to write some subjective judgments to complement the list of films I watch. However, I find other blogs useful for my cinematic quests.

Frequently, I read Jason Wiener's blog during a film festival. He sees so many films at each festival that I can use his film capsules as guideposts for films I want to watch at the same festival. Whereas Jason strives to see as many films as possible at the festivals, I just want to see enough to make my festival pass cost-effective and preferably to see as few clunkers as possible.

I also read Brian Darr's blog which is less about the films he sees and more about the film festival circuit and rep house programs in the Bay Area. Frequently, his blog will inform me of a program I was not aware of or remind me of a screening that I had forgotten about. Unfortunately, he updates his blog infrequently. Looking at 2010, he only posted 20 times after a January flurry of guest "Best of 2009" posts. There isn't too much new information on his blog per se.

I notice he has a Twitter feed on the sidebar of his blog. I don't have a Twitter account but I can follow the link on his blog to an archive of his Tweets. Every few days, I'll scan his tweets. Frequently, he is having a conversation with someone(s) and I'm only seeing half the conversation. That makes it easy to mentally filter out what I'm interested in; which are screenings that look interesting.

So it was with great sadness that I read in his Tweets that Viz Cinema is closing by February. First, I really enjoy the programming there and will miss it. Second, I have a number discount passes that I won't be able to use. I wonder if they will give refunds.

In his latest blog post, Darr wrote "Thus, it was with sadness but no surprise that I reacted to news from a ticketseller that the venue would be ceasing daily operations early next year [2011]." As I read that, I noted his use of the term "daily operations" as though the cinema may remain open for various special events. It seems strange they would close for 10 days of "maintenance" in January to reopen for the final week and a half of January. Why perform maintenance on a facility that is closing?

I'm not into reading tea leaves. I'll miss Viz. I think it is possible I have seen more films at Viz than anyone else. I'll have to go back and count the screenings I've seen there. I seem to recall writing on this blog that I was not optimistic that a Japanese-only film theater could survive in present day San Francisco but I can't find that post (if it ever existed).

I will say that in hindsight, Viz's demise was guaranteed when they switched programming to show more classics of Japanese cinema - Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, various 50 to 60 year old samurai films. These are the films I like but it was not in step with the J-Pop culture that is being promoted throughout the building. Viz Cinema occupies the basement of a three or four story building dedicated to J-Pop CDs, DVDs, clothes and other merchandise. Screening Sanshō the Bailiff (1954) won't bring in their target demographics who seem to be into Sailor Moon, Lolita dresses and Suicide Girls.

So as Viz started expanding their programming to bring in the PFA/festival crowds, they were moving away from their original mission which was to promote J-Pop through new movies. Being a single screen theater and programming films which appealed to a limited and largely older audience is not a recipe for success for a movie theater in 2010.

C'est la vie, Viz Cinema. I'll miss you and tried my best to support you.


On the day I read the bitter news about Viz, I also read this tweet from Darr.

RT @flavorpill_sf Sergei Einsenstein's 1925 classic "The Battleship Potemkin" screens tonight at New Valencia Hall

It contained a TinyURL link to Flavor Pill, an on-line bulletin board for local events.

As I read that Tweet, I recalled missing a screening of The Battleship Potemkin a year or two ago. I was excited to see the film.

As you read Darr's Tweet or the Flavor Pill page, there is no mention of the sponsoring organization. It seemed strange to me that New Valencia Hall was not on Valencia Street or in the Mission District but rather on Larkin Street near the Tenderloin. The name is "New Valencia" so maybe they relocated to Larkin but decided to keep the Valencia name. I googled "New Valencia Hall" but didn't find much.

Feeling adventurous, I decided to slum it in the Tenderloin on a rainy Tuesday night. When I arrived at 625 Larkin, the building looked more like an apartment building. There was a locked gated entrance and you had to enter a code to get buzzed up. They had a directory of tennants with their codes but I didn't see anything that looked like it was associated with a film screening. I buzzed a few numbers until someone answered. I identified myself as being there for the screening of The Battleship Potemkin and I was buzzed up to the second floor.

As I entered the room I was directed to, my eyes locked in on a large CRT television on a wheeled, multi-shelved, platform which reminded me of my high school A/V club. Immediately I became concerned that they were screening a DVD of The Battleship Potemkin; I could not see a film projector in the room.

As I considered whether or not leave, my eyes wandered to the bookcase against the near wall which had nothing but socialist and communist titles. In an instant, I recalled reading in the early 1990s about a bookstore in the Mission which claimed to have largest selection of Communist published works in the world. I wondered if this was the remmants of that bookstore.

While pondering what I had stumbled upon, a very friendly lady approached me. After introducing ourselves, she seemed very curious as to how I heard about the screening. I dropped the dime on Brian Darr immediately but she was not familiar with him so she questioned me a little more. I could not recall Flavor Pill so I told her that Darr linked to a social networking site that aggregated various local events. This seemed to satisfy her.

She then informed me that the Freedom Socialist Party was sponsoring the screening and that they were Lesbian Socialists. At this point, I was really in over my head. It took everything I had to keep a straight face. It was one of these only-in-San-Francisco moments. Politically, I consider myself a moderate; maybe slightly to the right on fiscal and tax issues. By San Francisco standards, I'm extremely conservative and I dreaded discussing politics with a representative from the Freedom Socialist Party.

I quickly stated that I was neither lesbian nor socialist but rather a cinephile and had long anticipated seeing Eisenstein's work. She mentioned having screened Que Viva Mexico previously. I mentioned the Mexican Revolutionary films which had screened at PFA earlier in the year. She responded by mentioning John Reed's account of the Mexican Revolution and Ten Days that Shook the World, Reed's account of the 1917 October Revolution. I replied that I had not read the books but had seen Reds with Warren Beatty which covered that period of Reed's life. This tidbit did not seem to interest or impress her.

I hoped this would end the conversation but instead she directed me to a table with Freedom Socialist Party literature and kindly informed me that they were having a special sales discount if I subscribed to their newsletter. I took the brochure and said I would take the matter under advisement. I was also invited to join their regular Tuesday night study group which is currently reading Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution Vol. 1.

She then asked me a number of questions about my profession and workplace which made me even more uncomfortable. It felt like she was probing me for some Socialist shibboleth which would put her at ease or satisfy her curiosity about me.

By then I had been shepherded to the far side of the room, away from the doorway. I was invited to help myself to the food ($6 donation suggested) or to a beverage ($1 donation suggested) and that any donation to help defray the cost of the screening would be appreciated. I donated $5 for the film and $1 for a Diet Coke. At this point, I felt I had run the guantlet and cowardly paid $5 for a DVD screening I didn't particularly want to see so I may as well watch the film or more accurately, disc. I settled into my seat to await the DVD.

At that point, another friendly lady approached me. After introducing ourselves, she asked how I heard about the screening. Later, a third woman asked how I heard about the screening. All these inquiries and the fact that their name was not listed on the front door tennant roster or Flavor Pill announcement made we wonder why they were so curious and secretive.

Thankfully, the screening started. A gentleman who was identified as a retired SFSU professor gave a short lecture on the film. He seemed quite knowledgeable on the film and spoke at the length about the Odessa Steps Massacre sequence in the film. In the film, Cossacks fire down upon a crowd supporting the mutinous sailors aboard the Potemkin. The length of the steps and number of crowd extras make scene of epic scale; like something out of a D.W. Griffith film. There was no massacre on the Odessa Steps but the memorable scene has led many to believe the massacre actually occurred. A case of fiction being more believable than fact.

'Powerhouse Mechanic Working on a Steam Pump', Lewis Hine, 1920.
As for the DVD screening; a larger television would have helped. However, once I accepted the fact it was a DVD screening, the television was sufficient. The discussion afterwards focused more on the historical context of the era when the film was made (Stalin was consolidating his power). I remained silent but mentally noted that certain scenes reminded me of the Victory at Sea documentaries of the US Navy during WWII. There were a number of scenes showing machines in motion or men next to machines in motion which when combined the classical musical score reminded me of Victory at Sea. It also reminded me of some WPA photos of men working with huge machinery.

Anyway, the net effect of the evening was that I saw a great film. I won't go into it much since it was only DVD. I also felt like I been targetted for Socialist inculcation or that I'm now on government watch list. As for the lesbians socialist, they aren't a bad bunch if they would just not press too much and not ask so many personal questions. As a precaution, Brian Darr's tweets about "film" screenings will need to be independently verified in the future.


Another thing I've noticed, Hell on Frisco Bay which is the name of Darr's blog is also the name of a 1955 film starring Alan Ladd and Edward G. Robinson. If you want to see a poster for Hell on Frisco Bay, look at the wall behind the concessions counter at the Balboa Theater.

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