Friday, October 13, 2006

Recommended films 10-13-10/19

APOLOGIES TO THE three regular readers of this space. Yes, I'm terribly late this week. Not that it makes any difference, but I've been immersed in writing a somewhat scholarly (I actually use the word “performativity”!) paper on Argentine filmmaker Maria Luisá Bemberg's final film De eso no se habla (1993), studying for a mid-term exam, trying to nail down the details of my final thesis statement, and trying to log and transcribe three hours of footage I've done for a documentary proposal prior to handing it off to an editor (Hi, Laura!). I missed Special Agent LC's birthday celebration at The Girl Can't Help It! this past Wednesday, although I did manage to catch the movie on Tuesday—one of the more enjoyable viewing experiences I've had recently, thanks to the presence of Special Agents ES and GH, not to mention the spectral presence of the always delightful Julie London.

Let's just get right to this week's recommendations:

THE EVENT of the week is
Rick Prelinger's presentation of industrial shorts, Spinning Up, Slowing Down: Industry Celebrates the Machine at the Pacific Film Archive Thursday, 10/19, 7 p.m. Prelinger is a San Franciscan who amassed a large collection of “mental hygiene” and industrial training and promotional films, creating what is now called the Prelinger Archive. The folks at Mystery Science Theater 3000 frequently tapped the archive for mid-20th century short gems like Jam Handy's Hired! (for General Motors, 1940), Kling Films' Mr. B Natural (for Conn, Ltd., 1957), and the unintentionally creepy Simmel-Meservey classroom instructional short A Date With Your Family (for Encyclopedia Britannica, 1950). These films are an unheralded treasure trove of history, providing a surprisingly frank view of how Americans of the 1940s through the 1960s viewed themselves—not as they were, but as they might be if they could shape their society to their wishes. Ken Smith assembled a monumental catalog of these films, with insightful commentary, Mental Hygiene (Blast Books, 1999).

As part of PFA's The Mechanical Age, Prelinger presents six short films about the United States' relationship with industrial machinery:

(Adapted from Prelinger's notes.) Precisely So (
Jam Handy Organization for Chevrolet, 1937, 2 mins, closing segment, Beta SP) is a stop-motion paean to precision.

Mechanical puppets offer a lesson in free enterprise in Round and Round (
Jam Handy for GM Public Relations Staff, 1939, 6 mins, Beta SP).

Pennsylvania steel mills shut down in Valley Town (Willard Van Dyke for Educational Film Institute of NYU and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, 1940, 24 mins, Beta SP), leaving behind a bleak post-industrial landscape filled with human detritus.

Conquer by the Clock (Slavko Vorkapich for RKO-Pathé, 1943, 11 mins, 16mm) shows World War II production in full swing just three years later, with workers and fighters rhythmically coordinated minute-by-minute in a prefiguration of today's Internet-synchronized world.

We end with
Jam Handy's industrial symphony and tour de force Master Hands (for Chevrolet, 1936, 33 mins, 35mm), a newly preserved Wagnerian epic showing the making of Chevrolets from foundry to final assembly.

This is, hands down, my top pick of this week.

WHEN TELEVISION reduced attendance at motion picture theaters during the 1950s, Hollywood responded with technology: stereo sound, different widescreen formats, and
3-D—the illusion of depth produced by viewing two similar images through polarized lenses. There was cheap 3-D, using one strip of double-exposed film and red-blue glasses, which produced headaches and rarely worked. There was expensive 3-D, using two different strips of film projected simultaneously, and transparent, polarized lenses, which produced fewer headaches, and worked more often than the cheap version. 3-D never really caught on, despite frequent attempts to revive it (last summer's fluffy popcorn confection, Superman Returns, had a 3-D sequence inserted for screenings at IMAX theaters).

A few years back, the
Castro Theatre installed the equipment required to project the expensive, dual-strip 3-D process, and they're presenting some genuine and ironic classics this week:

Saturday, 10/14: The Creature From the Black Lagoon trilogy! With Creature-bait Julie Adams and the man-in-the-suit himself, Ben Chapman, in person for both the matinee and evening shows. It all starts at noon for the daytime event, and at 7 p.m. for those who like it darker outside. Unfortunately, the third picture, The Creature Walks Among Us, will be presented from a digital source, and will not be in 3-D. But the first two (which are much better films anyway) are in glorious dual-system 3-D and black-and-white!

Sunday, 10/15: One of the most fun, cheesy 3-D horror flicks of all time, Andre de Toth's House of Wax (1953), with Vincent Price at the top of his scenery-chewing form, at 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. With the lesser but still fun Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954), directed by Roy Del Ruth, with Karl Malden's nose leaping from the screen into your lap, at 4:15 p.m. and 8:45 p.m.

Tuesday, 10/17: Tonight's menu features lots of sliced American cheese. Gorilla at Large (1954) features Lee J. Cobb investigating brutal murders at a circus where the gorilla is the chief suspect. It also features Raymond Burr and Lee Marvin. In eye-popping Technicolor, at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. With one of the most disturbing 1950s sci-fi flicks aimed at kids ever made: Robot Monster (1953). This one has to be seen to be disbelieved. If the bizarrely incestuous bondage sequences disturb you, just reflect on the wondrous spectacle of the 3-D bubble machine. A-wunnerful, a-wunnerful! In shamefully grainy black-and-white at 8:40 p.m.

Wednesday, 10/18: Cheesy sci-fi and horror take a backseat to the cheesecake of Ann Miller in the MGM musical Kiss Me Kate (1953). Incorporating and spinning off Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, this is a breathtaking spectacle in 3-D Ansocolor. With the Three Stooges' 3-D short, Pardon My Backfire (1953), both at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

Thursday, 10/19: The 3-D series ends with a sci-fi classic, It Came From Outer Space (1953), at 7 p.m. With the sci-fi “klassic” Cat-Women of the Moon, featuring Sonny Tufts and film noir icon Marie Windsor.

MORE HALLOWEEN season cheese is available at Oakland's
Parkway Theater, Thursday, 10/19, 7:30 p.m., as Will the Thrill and Monica Tiki Goddess introduce the splendidly awful Spanish-German co-production La Noche de Walpurgis (Werewolf vs. the Vampire Women, 1971) and the wonderfully wretched Filipino abomination Beast of the Yellow Night (1971). With apperances by Mister Lobo and The Devil-Ettes.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

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.