Monday, August 07, 2006

Hot Tickets: August 8 - August 15

Before we begin this week's round-up of films so amazingly wonderful that you'll want to kick yourself if you miss them (really), some words about my current favorite thing:

How did I go nine years without making it to
Peaches Christ's Midnight Mass? These midnight screenings of the bizarre, strange, bad and downright weird are just plain delightful. The pre-show sketch she stages for her annual presentation of Showgirls (Carolco, 1995), sending up the film's abominable “volcano dance” is a breathtaking spectacle that gives that mind-bogglingly misogynistic film the buggering it so richly deserves.

Showmanship aside, perhaps the most amazing thing about Christ is her understanding of the films she programs, and her skills as an event booker, a film sleuth, and an onstage interviewer/moderator. For her presentation of Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (20th Century Fox, 1968), she had three stars from this 38-year-old masterpiece, Erica Gavin, Marcia McBroom, and Z-Man himself, John Lazar. At times, Lazar—who was a very early member of San Francisco's own American Conservatory Theater— threatened to run roughshod over the panel and the crowd, but Christ always brought his ego back to earth without ruffling his well-preened feathers. The ability to control a panel discussion while maintaining respect among the participants is a rare gift. Topping the experience off is the well-researched and witty flyer describing each week's show, written by “Bobby B.”

Sadly, this year's Midnight Mass series draws to its close this weekend with one of the great drag spectacles of all time: Mommie Dearest (Paramount, 1981). This film paints a truly horrific picture of Joan Crawford, as remembered by her daughter Christina, then re-imagined by director Frank Perry (his career highlight, unless you want to consider the 1987 TV-movie JFK: A One Man Show with M*A*S*H's Mike Farrell) and four credited screenwriters (there were probably another half-dozen lucky enough to have their names off the credits.) Faye Dunaway's face is frozen into Crawford's late-career mask, and she compensates for the rigid eyebrows by exaggerating every other gesture to the point of absurdity. This is one truly wretched film, and Midnight Mass is the place to see it. The pre-show, Trannie Dearest, will feature Christ and her frequent co-star, Heklina. At the Bridge Theater,
Friday, 8/11 and Saturday, 8/12, MIDNIGHT. Get tickets early. This will sell out.

If ever there was a face made for the big screen, it was
Ingrid Bergman's. You can see her visage 50 feet tall at Palo Alto's Stanford Theater Friday, 8/11, through Monday, 8/14, in two of her best features: Notorious (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, RKO, 1946), and Casablanca (dir. Michael Curtiz, Warner Bros., 1942). They're among the most accessible and frequently seen movies from the classic Hollywood era, but they must be seen on a big screen to be fully appreciated, and the Stanford is one of the best places to see them.

Notorious is a delicious thriller with Bergman playing against type as a drunken German living in the U.S. following WWII, pressed against her will into helping to crack a Nazi spy ring directed by mama's boy Claude Rains. Cary Grant is alternately charming and despicable as he drags Bergman into foreign intrigue.

Casablanca is the best example of what Hollywood could do when every component of its assembly line worked. A formulaic programmer given A-picture treatment, it completed the transformation of Humphrey Bogart from second-rate gangster to top-drawer romantic hero, made “As Time Goes By” one of the great 20th Century romantic songs, and gave Claude Rains some of the best lines of his career— “I'm shocked—shocked to learn there is gambling here!”

I've always believed that I awoke to how media totally fails to reflect reality when I realized that almost every character on TV drama shows kept a handgun in their house, glove compartment, cookie jar, vest, garter, etc., and that I knew almost no one with a handgun—and those that did were the sort I wished I didn't know. This is a roundabout way of getting to a criticism of new filmmakers: Enough already with the gritty urban crap about prostitution, drug addiction, mules, gangs and the like. Unless you've actually lived that life yourself, there's not much you can say about it that hasn't already been said by much better filmmakers than you—because your film will inevitably be a fiction based on someone else's fiction, based upon another's fiction in a cascading loop of infinity back to Homer. And no one wants to see that.

That said, there are interesting films being made by new filmmakers who've been inspired by something other than derivative clones of Pulp Fiction, and you might catch one at the
San Francisco International Festival of Short Films, Wednesday, 8/09, through Saturday, 8/12. There is a metric crapload of films scheduled. These are the ones that look promising to me (although I've seen none of them, so be warned):

For Seid, Mimi, and Amelezewd, by Randy Bell, is a documentary about life at an Ethiopian orphanage for children with AIDS, or children who have lost their family to the disease. The film focuses on three kids. It's about real people, in a real, difficult situation that we should all think about before ordering a $4 latte. It's part of a program that runs at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, 8/10 at
California College of the Arts, 3 p.m. Friday, 8/11 at the Roxie Film Center, 9 p.m. Saturday, 8/12 at the Victoria Theater.

Punk Wall, directed by Karen Gleinke, about a houseful of dodge-ball playing punk-rockers (isn't that just the quaintest term now that
Joey Ramone's been dead for five years?) isolated by a concrete wall from their frowning neighbors. I can't tell if it's a documentary or fiction, but either way, it's an intriguing idea, and it's only 20 minutes long. It's part of a program that runs at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, 8/10 at California College of the Arts, 3 p.m. Friday, 8/11, at the Roxie Film Center, 9 p.m. Saturday, 8/12 at the Victoria Theater.

K-7, by Christoper Leone, is the film with all the buzz. It's been in pretty near every damned film festival in the country, and picked up a whole bunch of awards. But we shouldn't hold that against it, nor should we dismiss it because Leone is a Hollywood special effects artist with credits on merde like The X-Files, The Crow: Salvation, and The Cable Guy. A guy's gotta eat. The idea of the film is pretty cunning: a young job applicant learns that his aptitude test results show he's best suited to be a CIA assassin, and he needs to prove he's ready for the job NOW, or forget about it. Forever. (This could be that rare instance where the use of violence is not merely derivative.) On a program at the
Roxie Film Center, 7:15 p.m. Friday, 8/11, at the Victoria Theater, Saturday, 11 p.m., 8/12.

Let's talk about film for a minute. I mean the actual acetate strip that you can hold in your hand against a light source to see a photographic image. This was the media form everyone referred to when they said “movie” until the home video recorder became affordable in the late 1970s. Now people think a piece of shiny mylar sandwiched between two pieces of clear plastic is a “film.” It is nothing of the sort. No film archive in the world uses digital storage as a solution for preserving movies, because all video forms have proven far too volatile. They use film. (Don't get too smug about your DVD collection. In about five years time you'll be in a big hurry to dump them all in favor of HD-DVD or Blu-Ray discs, and you can bet the new machines won't play your old DVDs.
Here's Kevin Murphy—Tom Servo from MST3K—on the topic.)

Film, projected in a theater, is still the best way to see a movie, and the best format in use today is 70mm, so called because that is the measure of the width of the acetate, making it ideal for the wide, wide screen. Most widescreen films are projected anamorphically—the image is compressed to fit on a 35mm frame, then expanded when projected through a special lens. (Check
this out for a good explanation.) So what you're seeing is an image that's been altered by two lenses, or gone through a glass darkly. Fortunately, the Castro Theater still has a 70mm projector, and they're running a bunch of widescreen classics from 70mm prints, Friday, 8/11 through Thursday, 8/24. If you haven't seen them in 70mm, you haven't seen them. My recommendations:

2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Stanley Kubrick, MGM, 1968), Friday, 8/11, 6 p.m. & 9 p.m. This is my desert island film. Difficult, rich, beautiful, cold, frustrating, enlightening, bleak and full of hope, it remains one of the most intelligent films ever made. It's iconic for a reason. (
Here's a pretty interesting attempt at explaining the film—the Flash animation is precious, but the authors are on to something. Well worth checking out.)

Lawrence of Arabia (dir. David Lean, Horizon/Columbia, 1962), Sunday, Aug. 13, 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m., Monday, Aug. 14, 7 p.m. This is THE MOST GLORIOUS FILM DAVID LEAN EVER MADE! It's still astonishingly relevant today, and Peter O'Toole gives the performance of his career, as does Omar Sharif. T.E. Lawrence, the titular character was a remarkable person, and I can't help think that if the British government had actually paid him the attention he deserved, we might not be in the damned mess we're in today. Check out
this, this, and this for more about Lawrence.
More widescreen recommendations coming next week!

Kenji Mizoguchi was a pioneer of Japanese cinema. In a career that lasted from 1923 through 1956, the year of his death at the age of 58, he helped to define the movies in Japan. Marked by a lack of closeups, a fascination with desire and a surprising feminism, his films remain important. (Although not without controversy—I'd love to see Manmo kenkoku no reimi, his 1932 justification for Japan's criminal occupation of Manchuria.) The Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley begins a small retrospective of his films with Sisters of the Gion (1936), an unblinking look at life for women in a Tokyo red-light zone, examining the clash of traditional geisha style and the onset of modern, Western prostitution. Friday, 8/11, 8:45 p.m.

Preceding Sisters of the Gion is a film from an American master of desire,
Frank Borzage, Man's Castle (1933, reedited 1938). With Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young as victims of the Great Depression, the film remains refreshingly frank despite the 1938 edits that made it conform to the censorious Production Code Authority. Friday, 8/11, 7 p.m. at the Pacific Film Archive.

Entire contents copyright 2006 by Richard Hildreth. All rights reserved.


Anonymous Laura Shapiro said...

Great stuff. Almost makes me wish I were going to be in town this week. (:

I liked your commentary about the "gritty urban life" schtick, but I'd love to see it developed into a longer essay. I would mention that this kind of thing has been a staple of the movies for a long time (thank you, film noir), so I hardly expect Hollywood to recover from its infatuation with gangs and guns anytime soon. Still, I'm always interested in what sells to the mainstream -- and what would sell, if given half the chance.

BTW, I recommended your blog today. Hope it draws some traffic for you.

10:32 AM, August 09, 2006  
Blogger HildrethR said...

Thanks for the recommendation, and your thoughtful comments.

About young filmmakers and the use of dark, criminal settings. I LOVE movies that use dark, criminal settings as a platform for the transformation of compelling characters through personal challenges posed by their environment and situation. My problem lies with the use of cliches that serve only to remind the viewer of better films.

Stories are inherently derivative. Well-told stories offer more than borrowed elements. They provide a unique point of engagement for the reader or viewer. Quentin Tarantino announced the derivative nature of his breakout film in its title, Pulp Fiction. He drew from many sources, but he also provided a unique sense of style, insouciance and campiness that made the film something more than the sum of its stolen parts. (He should thank his lucky stars every day that he had Sally Menke editing the film for him, as so much of that film depends on her brilliance.)

Robert Rodriguez is another example of a (then-)young filmmaker who took the same cliches and added something new in his breakout film El Mariachi.

These filmmakers had something new to say within a genre that inspired them. They weren't expecting violence alone to make their story interesting. They made violence an element of the characters that drove a story that leads to transformation.

Unfortunately, most young filmmakers and writers do not believe (or recognize) they have a story of their own to tell. They copy stories they like, and add nothing new, producing an inherently inferior product.

If there's an ex-junkie that wants to make a film about junkies, she should, because her experience gives her unique knowledge that will make her film interesting. If someone can identify a stylistic expression that transforms a cliche to something new, he should. If a filmmaker can think of nothing more to do than to copy someone else's work, that filmmaker needs to get a bit more life experience, and find a story that means something. Or work for TV.

1:06 PM, August 09, 2006  
Anonymous Erica Sweetman said...

I think the problem with the urban/gritty/everyone's-packing-heat genre and young filmmakers has its origin in young filmmakers' desire to be taken seriously. The darker the imagery, the theory goes, the less likely it will be dismissed- or worse yet- laughed at. We know that this is a false premise- there are many laughably bad attempts at this genre out there. However, there does seem to be a societal bias that this sort of fantasy realm in more 'real', than, say, a well-told fairy tale.

12:42 PM, August 14, 2006  

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