Sunday, August 28, 2011

People Who Never Get Old For The Wrong Reasons, New New People, Same Old Same Old, The Searchers, The Bowery Boys and King Kong

The passing of former San Francisco Film Society Executive Director Graham Leggat has put me in a contemplative mood. Only eight years older than me, I cringe when I see someone close in age pass away. Less than a month before, I read about a gathering at Tosca Cafe to honor Leggat. I read the article and thought it was a celebration of his accomplishments at SFFS tinged with the knowledge that his cancer was incurable. In hindsight, it appears as though Leggat presided over his own sounds like something out of a movie.

According to the SFFS press release, "In lieu of flowers, donations in Leggat's memory may be made to the San Francisco Film Society."


Leggat's most immediate legacy at SFFS is the partnership with New People Cinema. SFFS will exhibit films at New People Cinema (aka Viz Cinema). The first five films to be exhibited are the latest from Jean-Luc Godard, an Argentinian film about a woman competing in jigsaw puzzle competitions, Aurora - a Romainian film which screened at this year's International, The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan and Shaolin which is scheduled to open three weeks earlier at the 4 Star. I can't fault the line-up except I wish it would retain some of the Japanese films which is New People's line of business. Doesn't it seem strange to exhibit international films at a building dedicated to J-Pop culture? I hope they can carve out a few days per month for Japanese films. This weekend, there is a J-Pop Summit at New People. Part of the festivities include Japanese film screenings. I wonder if they'll be able to do that next year.

Actually, as long as I'm complaining, the configuration of the Viz Cinema is not conducive to large crowds. The box office and theater are in the basement and queuing up may cause problems. At the SFIFF, they had people queue up on sidewalk outside the building with the box office/will call table in the street level atrium. I doubt that will be the everyday practice.

The SFFS programming kicks off on Friday, September 2 at New People with Godard's Film Socialisme.


In this week's newsletter from the Balboa Theater, Gary Meyer writes "As I continue discussions with interested parties for taking over the Balboa I am heartened by the passion and loyalty many people have expressed for the theater. There are wonderful dreamers who think it would be fun but have no idea what is involved in running this kind of business. I love their enthusiasm but soon they become overwhelmed by all the aspects of staying afloat. I hope that the theater can stay open and I have extended my operation through September."

Previously, Meyer stated "The good news is that I think I have found an enthusiastic group of experienced theater lovers to carry on with our current staff remaining." I didn't read that sentence carefully. "Experienced theater lovers" doesn't necessarily mean the group has experience running a theater. It could mean they have experience loving theaters presumably movie theaters. Meyer's latest report sounds downbeat. It's not enough to have enthusiasm according to Meyer. Running a theater is a grind that can wear you out. I won't disagree as I've never worked at a movie theater. It is heartening that Meyer is extending his stay by a month and that he won't turn over operation to someone(s) who he believes will fail. It would be depressing to have someone come in and run the Balboa into ground or close up shop six months or a year from now.


In similar news, I've been following off and on, the plight of the New Parkway Theater in Oakland. The Parkway shut down as part of the implosion of Catherine and Kyle Fischer's Speakeasy fiasco. I don't recall all the details. I believe the Cerrito Speakeasy theater soaked up all the money which left the Parkway Speakeasy impoverished; kind of a "rob Peter to pay Paul" situation.

Anyway, a group of investors led by J. Moses Ceaser, who is on the staff at Third I, has tried to reopen the Parkway. He has encountered many setbacks which you can read in their newsletters. In essence, Ceasar has chronicled his negotiations in the newsletter. That seems like an unorthodox and detrimental negotiating tactic but it makes for interesting reading. I used to check the website once a month to read three or four newsletters. As his various lease negotiations have stalled, Ceasar has published the newsletters less frequently. It's been 12 weeks and counting since his last newsletter.

The point is not to criticize Ceasar's public negotiations but to point out that re-opening a movie theater (or transferring ownership) appears to be a complex transaction as exampled by Meyer and Ceasar. I also infer that once a movie theater ceases operation, it is extremely difficult to restart which explains why Meyer is so picky about who he turns the reins over to.


Now that I've opined on someone I didn't know very well and a business I know close to nothing about, I'll share my pearls of wisdom on The Searchers.

The Searchers was part of the Max Steiner series at the Castro. Generally considered John Wayne and John Ford's best film (collaboratively and individually), The Searchers is indeed impressive.

Foremost, Wayne's Ethan Edwards has a dubious character. Not roguish and certainly not heroic, it is implied that Edwards had an intimate relationship with his brother's wife, that he was a mercenary and made quite clear he has a hatred and prejudice against Indians (now politely referred to Native Americans). The hatred is rooted in the death of his mother who was killed by Indians years earlier.

Edwards arrives at his brother's ranch in Texas after a long absence. He is warmly greeted by his brother, his wife and their three children. Shortly thereafter, a posse of Texas Rangers arrive to report some cattle stolen from a neighboring ranch. Ethan resentfully joins the posse which turns out to be a ruse by Comanches. While the Rangers are chasing the cattle, Comanche raiders attack the Edwards ranch leaving Ethan's brother, sister-in-law and nephew dead. His two nieces have been kidnapped by the Comanches. Ethan, the Rangers, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), Ethan's adopted nephew and Ethan's elder niece's fiancé set out to retrieve the girls.

The rest of the film relates to the multi-year search for the two girls. The elder girl is found raped and murdered. One by one, the search party is reduced in numbers until only Ethan and Martin are left. Ethan's motivations are intense but unstated. I wondered if his younger niece is actually his secret daughter. Regardless, Ethan's promises to kill the girl once he discovers she has become a Comanche warrior's wife. The thought of his niece having relations with a Comanche is more than Ethan can bear...better dead than red. It's not just the sex part though. Ethan hates Indians and having lived amongst the Comanches for more than half her life, Debbie (Natalie Wood as a teenager and her sister Lana as a young girl) is more Indian than white; at least that is what Ethan is worried about.

Martin's motivation is less clear. He is being aggressively courted by a rancher's daughter (Vera Miles). He could easily drop out and get married. Ethan's latent hostility towards him would seem to be enough but Martin is extremely loyal to the Edwards family and fond of Debbie. Martin is also half-Cherokee and it instills an inferiority complex on his which he must disprove particularly as it relates to his uncle.

The grandeur of the The Searchers is that it plumbs the depths of Edward's soul and Ford makes optimum use of the Monument Valley landscape. I can't recall Wayne portraying such a conflicted character in any other film. Edwards is full of hatred and vengeance and it propels him for years as he searches for his nieces - the search to find his nieces destroys Edwards piece by piece. I'm certain the ending of The Searchers was dictated by the need to conform to the Production Code but I've gotten used to ignoring the ending of movies from the Code Era.


I wanted to mention quickly that Angels with Dirty Faces was interesting. James Cagney played a gangster and Pat O'Brien played a priest so Angels could have been predictable. What set it apart was the presence of The Bowery Boys (credited as the Dead End Kids). I recall Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, et al. from a series of B pictures from the 1950s. They looked like middle-aged men. In Angels with Dirty Faces, they actually look young enough to be juvenile delinquents. Gorcey was 21 and Hall 19 when Angels with Dirty Faces was released. Although they got a few laughs, the Kids had some serious moments.

Angels with Dirty Faces is also remembered for the closing scene. Cagney has been sentenced to death. Before he is led off to the gas chamber (or maybe the electric chair), O'Brien asks him to pretend to be a coward before his death so as to be a deterrent for the Dead Kids; the ultimate Scared Straight. Cagney turns him down flat but from off screen, you hear him begging and pleading for his life. It's left ambiguous to whether he was really scared or whether he decided to the do the right thing before he died.


The remaining film from the series was the original King Kong. There's not much to add to words written about this classic. My observations were: the stop motion animation for King Kong is still impressive but the head model of King Kong looks silly, I had forgotten about the T-Rex and Pterodactyl fight scenes, Fay Wray is sexier than I remember and the scenes with the natives are comically racist now.

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