Recommended Films 10/5 - 10/12
MY ROOTS AS a cinephile could be traced to a 16mm print of Casablanca (1942) shown at the University of Connecticut in 1978, a 1974 screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) at Loew's College Theater in New Haven, or my earliest cinematic memory: Sean Connery and Honor Blackman in Goldfinger, seen at a drive-in with my entire family when I was seven years old. More likely, my interest in the movies began at home, on the cathode ray tube. Before I was even allowed to take the bus downtown by myself, I was a regular viewer of Creature Features on WNEW-TV, channel 5 from New York City. The pre-cable poor reception often resulted in a snowy, wavy picture, adding to the mystery as black-and-white ghosts of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Claude Rains, Elsa Lanchester, and Lon Chaney, Jr. wandered through Hollywood's figment of Mitteleuropa. Unconsciously and unintentionally, I was introduced to German Expressionism, gothic literature and architecture through the work of directors Tod Browning, Edgar G. Ulmer, and James Whale, cinematographers Karl Freund and John J. Mescall, and designers Charles Hall and Jack Otterson, although it would be years before I knew their names.
In the post-video age, there are no more Creature Features. TV channels are targeted to specific genres and marketing demographics: channel surfing 10-year-olds won't stumble across Dwight Frye's delirious “Rats! Millions of rats!” speech from Dracula (1931), because the only channel likely to screen it today is Turner Classic Movies, which no self-respecting kid would be caught dead watching.
October brings with it Halloween, the most important holiday on San Francisco's calendars. And Halloween brings with it a raft of horror films to theaters. Sadly, none (that I know of—please correct me if I'm wrong) appear to be screening the classics from Universal's golden age, but there are a few delightfully fun examples from the post-atomic era on the horizon.
STRANGE AS IT seems today, Brian DePalma was once part of a “new direction” in American cinema. Along with Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg, DePalma was part of the first generation of American film directors to come from film schools rather than the studio system. His early films, like Dionysus in '69, Sisters, Greetings (the first film to receive an X from the MPAA) and Sisters, were considered part of an American “new wave.” DePalma's trademark was his use of homage which reflected his cinematic influences. Chief among these was Alfred Hitchcock. Beginning with Dressed to Kill (1980), DePalma's Hitchcockian touches started to seem like ill-considered parodies. By the time he hollowly restaged the Odessa steps sequence from Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin in The Untouchables (1987), it was apparent that any art that was once present in DePalma's work had been replaced by artifice. Now he shepherds the latest generation of brat packers through focus group-produced pastiches like Mission to Mars (2000) and The Black Dahlia (2006).
The early, fun DePalma is on display at the Clay this weekend, with Phantom of the Paradise (1974). This savaging of the American pop music industry fell like a thud on its initial release. Promoted as a rock 'n' roll spectacle, it failed to dazzle the target audience of 16-25 year-olds who recognized it for what it was: a slap in the face of a consumer class who bought whatever tripe Rolling Stone told them to. (Among the biggest hits of 1974: “Mockingbird” by James Taylor and Carly Simon, “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas, “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede, “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks, and “You're Having My Baby” by Paul Anka.) It's since achieved cult status, buoyed by a fan base that was too young to appreciate it when it first came out. There's even a convention, Phantompalooza. DePalma's use of homage is surprisingly restrained and even funny. His send-ups of the excesses of the 1970s music scene are priceless: The story combines Faust with The Phantom of the Opera in a portrayal of a naïve and pretentious songwriter who signs a bargain with the devil after the devil has already destroyed him. Beef, the glam-rock stand-in, says at one point: “I can tell drug real from real real!”
Flesh Muppet Paul Williams, who composed all of the songs, which rain righteous ridicule on the Beach Boys, Linda Ronstadt, Carole King, KISS, Elton John, Alice Cooper, David Bowie, and the '50s nostalgia craze, will appear at the screening. He portrays the chief villain, a Satanic boy band version of Dorian Gray. William Finley, DePalma's classmate at Sarah Lawrence College's theater school, plays the Phantom. The woefully underrated Jessica Harper provides a convincing portrayal of Phoenix, the grasping and somewhat slightly dazed wannabe singer, as well as an impressive singing voice. See it in a new 35mm print at the Clay Theatre at MIDNIGHT, Friday, 10/6. Goth-techno duo Evolution Rainbow provide a pre-show mini-concert. This is a co-presentation of Peaches Christ's Midnight Mass.
THE 1980s saw a lot of horror films, continuing a trend begun by the success of DePalma's Carrie (1976), John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and others. Return of the Living Dead (1985) is one of the funniest entries in the field. Based loosely on a screenplay by John Russo, George Romero's partner on the original Night of the Living Dead (1968), this parody makes brain-eating zombies funny while not sacrificing any of the gore. Director and writer Dan O'Bannon, who wrote the screenplay for Alien (1979), delivers a delightfully implausible exploitation film that rips off punk music, cold war tensions, consumer society and medical science, that's more fun than you might think. Features the legendary line “send more cops,” and a wondrously gratuitous graveyard strip (minus the tease) by scream queen extraordinaire Linnea Quigley. It's in a new 35mm print at the Castro Theatre, 7:30 p.m. Friday 10/6, as part of Jesse Ficks' Midnites for Maniacs, along with Alex Cox's loving portrait of Sex Pistol Sid Vicious, Sid and Nancy (1986) and John Carpenter's They Live (1988).
FOR YEARS NOW, I've been hearing that the obsolete and inflammable nitrate filmstock that was the base for all 35mm films up to about 1952 produced a sharper, more luminescent image on the silver screen than the acetate stock used since. The scarcity of nitrate prints, plus the even greater lack of projection booths equipped to show these potentially destructive films, means that I've had to take that statement on faith. Our chance is finally here.
The Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, one of the few cinemas equipped with self-sealing, projectionist-dooming steel trap booths required for public safety while screening nitrate stock, is running several nitrate-based reels during their current series, from now through early December. Every Wednesday and Thursday, the 7:30 p.m. film will be projected from a nitrate print. Every Friday, at least one of the evening's two features will be seen in nitrate-based Technicolor. The series is dedicated overall to the films made by 20th Century Fox during Darryl Zanuck's tenure as studio chief.
Thursday, 10/4, Love is News (1937) is the nitrate feature at 7:30 p.m. Tyrone Power, Loretta Young and Don Ameche star in the screwball comedy based at a newspaper. It plays with The Magnificent Dope (1942), with Ameche and Henry Fonda.
Friday, 10/6, catch the big and brassy musicals State Fair (1945) at 7:30 p.m. and Carousel (1956) at 5:10 p.m. and 9:20 p.m., at least one of which (probably State Fair) will be in glorious nitrate Technicolor.
Wednesday, 10/11 and Thursday, 10/12, see the nitrate print of In Old Chicago (1938) at 7:30 p.m. Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, Don Ameche, Brian Donlevy and Andy Devine star in this historical spectacle about Chicago's O'Leary family—owners of Mrs. O'Leary's pyromaniac cow. Plays with Ladies in Love (1936), with Janet Gaynor, Loretta Young and Constance Bennett as three gals hunting men and an apartment in Budapest.
Next Friday, 10/13, set your calendar ahead for a nitrate print of Leave Her to Heaven (1946), a glorious deep woods Technicolor noir extravaganza (no, that is NOT a contradictory description) with the incomparable Gene Tierney as one of the most psychotic femmes fatale of all time. Plays with Niagara (1953), another fabulous Technicolor noir with Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten.
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON'S The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has proven to be one of the more enduring 19th century gothic fables. Cinematic adaptations range from the sublime (Victor Fleming's 1941 version with Spencer Tracy) to the strange (Roy Ward Baker's Hammer 1971 extravaganza Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, with Bond girl Martine Beswick as the shapely beast) to the stupid (Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical featuring David Hasselhoff, from 2001). Among the best adaptations is the 1920 silent film from Famous Players-Lasky, featuring John Barrymore in the title roles. Barrymore gives a tour-de-force performance here, using minimal makeup tricks, embodying the monster through his own natural talents. See it at the Balboa Theater, Thursday, 10/12, with a new score by Massachussetts' Devil Music Ensemble.
THE MECHANICAL AGE series at the Pacific Film Archive continues Sunday, 10/8, with The Steel Beast at 3:30 p.m. and La Bête Humaine at 5:30 p.m. German photographer Willy Otto Zielke was commissioned by Hitler's government to make a film commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Nuremberg-Fürth railroad. The Steel Beast, the Surrealist, avant garde movie he submitted was a beautiful examination of the greatest machine of the 19th Century—the train—and a masterstroke worthy of Kino-Eye founder Dziga Vertov. It was also highly subversive in the eyes of the Nazis, who banned it as decadent. It plays with Shirley Clarke's Bridges Go Round (1958) and Joris Ivens' De Brug (The Bridge) (1928). La Bête Humaine (1938) is Jean Renoir's adaptation of Emil Zola's novel about a tortured railroad engineer. It established Jean Gabin as a star.
ANOTHER OF MY guilty pleasures is The Girl Can't Help It (1956), 20th Century Fox's big budget, Technicolor Cinemascope entry into the then-scandalous arena of rock 'n' roll movies. Directed by former Looney Tunes director Frank Tashlin, the story revolves around woebegone music promoter Tom Miller (Tom Ewell) who tries to make a singing star of tone deaf but pneumatic Jerri Jordon (Jayne Mansfield) at the insistence of mob boss Marty Murdock (Edmond O'Brien), all while pining for his lost love, torch singer Julie London (Julie London—a master stroke of casting). That's all great fun (and it really, really is), but the real reason for this film is to see some of the early rock 'n' roll stars in widescreen and Technicolor. Little Richard, The Platters, Eddie Cochran, Fats Domino and Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps all give amazing performances. The Castro Theatre presents a glorious new 35mm anamorphic print of this widescreen extravaganza Tuesday, 10/10 at 7 p.m. and 9:05 p.m., and Wednesday, 10/11 at 2:30 p.m., 4:45 p.m., 7 p.m., and 9:05 p.m. Don't be square, Daddy-O.
Text copyright 2006 by Richard Hildreth. All rights reserved.