Saturday, December 29, 2012

Saul Bass, Woody Allen & Jasper Johns at Oddball

On Thursday, I went to Oddball Films for the first time.  Located in the Mission District, Oddball is located on Capp Street, a narrow street which runs parallel to Mission St. starting at 15th Street until it curves around to end on Mission around Army Street (aka Cesar Chavez St.).  Notorious for streetwalkers, I don't believe I've ever been on Capp St.  In fact, I rarely venture "East of Mission."

Not sure what I would encounter, Capp St. was a surprising mix of well tended residences and businesses included a car repair place and a business having an NFPA 704 placard.  Oddball shares its building with Sutter Furniture Manufacturing Company.  Oddball, a company specializing in offbeat films, looks like what you would expect a film archive to look like.  Housed on the top floor of an old warehouse space (with wooden beams in the middle of the floor space), Oddball has reels of film piled floor to ceiling.  The room was drafty and the well worn wood floor did not help acoustics.  The film projectors were in the middle of the audience with the whirring motor clearly audible to all.  The bathroom had a shower stall in it.  There was a makeshift bar in the corner and wall ornaments which made it looked like a cineaste's clubhouse.

A few years ago, I noted Saul Bass' distinctive title sequences from several Otto Preminger films.  When I read the title of Thursday's program (Saul Bass and the Creative Impulse), I decided to visit Oddball for the first time.  RSVP was required and I assumeed cash only payment at the door.  There were probably 20 to 25 people in the audience who took up 80% of the seats.

Four short films were screened.

Why Man Creates; directed by Saul Bass; animation and live action; 29 minutes; (1968)
Bass on Titles; directed & written by Saul Bass & Stan Hart; documentary; (1977)
Woody Allen: An American Comedy; directed by Harold Mantell; documentary; (1977)
USA Artists: Jasper Johns; documentary; (1966)

The screening  was scheduled for 8 PM, but didn't start until after 8:15 and the total program took just over two hours.  Guest curator Landon Bates operated the two projectors.  He cut short the ending credits as he switched from one film to the next.  The screening had a "vacation movie" feel; like I was a kid going to one of my parents' friends' house to watch their vacation film or slide projector photos.

Why Man Creates won an Oscar in 1969 for Best Documentary Short Film.  It looks very much like a film from the 1960s.  It reminded of some of the stuff I saw on PBS as a kid in the 1970s.  Comprised of several unrelated parts, my favorite segment from Why Man Creates was called The Edifice.  It was an animated history of civilization.  The animation reminded me of the comic strip B.C. and was clever at moments.

Bass on Titles consists of the complete title sequences from 10 films which Bass worked on.  The ten films were The Man with the Golden ArmThe Big CountryWest Side StoryWalk on the Wild SideNine Hours to RamaIt's a Mad Mad Mad Mad WorldThe VictorsIn Harm's WaySecondsGrand Prix.  In between title sequences, Bass talks about his approach and goal regarding each title sequence.  In a nutshell, Bass started off making logos for films.  Before, during and after his foray into film-making, Bass was a graphic designer who designed the logos for United Airlines, AT&T and many other companies.

Bass' first film job was to create the film poster for Preminger's Carmen Jones. Bass quickly realized film allowed his images to move so the rose consumed by flames was integrated into the title sequence.  These animated sequences (often using geometric shapes) are my favorites.  Their aesthetics match my preferences.  In addition to numerous Preminger films, Bass titled several Hitchcock classics (Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho).

As Bass described, these title sequences foreshadowed the film.  The burning rose represents the beauty and danger associated with Carmen Jones, the sharp points in The Man with the Golden Arm are the syringes Frank Sinatra's character uses to shoot heroin, the kaleidoscopic images in Vertigo show the jumbled state of Jimmy Stewart's mind & psyche.  Once Bass moved towards live action scenes which were essentially prologues to the film, my interest in them waned.  It's purely a matter of personal preference but those animated sequence appealed to something very deep within me.  Not emotionally but rather visually hypnotic, I could watch them over and over.

Woody Allen: An American Comedy was a talking head documentary featuring Woody Allen and clips from several of his early films.  I didn't really learn much.  I had seen an American Masters two parter on Allen last year so I was familiar with the material.  I am surprised at how little Allen has changed over the years.  Certainly he has aged but his dress and mannerisms have remained constant.

USA: Artists was a program on National Educational Television, the predecessor to PBS.  Apparently profiling American artists, Jasper Johns was the subject of this particular episode.  With halting speech as he changes course in mid-answer, Johns is not an ideal interviewee.  Whatever Johns lacks in polished oration, he makes up for with the earnestness of his commitment to art.  At times appearing ill at ease in front of the cameras, John's on-screen persona is hard to imagine in today's culture of media saturation.  A successful artist would be schooled in interview skills before being allowed in front of the cameras.  That a visual artifact like this footage even exists made the trip to Oddball worthwhile.

All said, the evening at Oddball was very satisfying if not somewhat physically uncomfortable.  Many people brought food and drink with them.  The cushioned seats were all occupied when I arrived so I will attempt to arrive earlier next time.  Cold on Thursday night, I imagine the space traps heat on warm days.  Still, if I see a program which interests me in the future, I will make it a point to attend.

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