Saturday, November 15, 2014

Broncho Billy's Wild Ride (1914)

Publicity photograph provided by Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum
WHO: Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson directed and starred in this.

WHAT: A short film featuring Anderson, Marguerite Clayton, True Boardman and a number of local schoolchildren from Niles, California where Anderson's studio was located. David Kiehn's page-turner of a history book, Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company, indicates that part of the story took as inspiration a real-life injury that would haunt Anderson well into his retirement. That book's short synopsis of the plot is as follows: "Billy, an outlaw on trial, escapes from court, but is caught after he saves the judge's daughter on a runaway horse."

WHERE/WHEN: Tonight only at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, at 7:30PM.

WHY: I wrote about Niles in a PressPlay/Indiewire article a few years ago, that has for some reason unknown to me be taken down:
Niles nestles against the hills of Fremont, California, 30 miles east of San Francisco and 350 miles north of Los Angeles. Filled with antique shops and humble residences, it’s a town steeped in motion picture history. The first cowboy movie star, G.A. “Bronco Billy” Anderson, and Charlie Chaplin were among those who encamped there to shoot pictures in the mid-1910s, before Hollywood became THE go-to site in California for filmmaking, 
Now, nearly a hundred years later, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum keeps the past alive with weekly Saturday evening screenings of silent movies backed by live musical accompaniments. It’s one of the few public venues where one can regularly see 16mm and 35mm prints of all kinds of American and occasionally European silents.
Tonight's Niles screening is the 500th Saturday night silent film show scheduled at the Museum's Edison Theatre since it was refurbished and reopened in 2005. 51 Saturdays per year (the only annual week off is the San Francisco Silent Film Festival weekend), film prints show on a very regular basis. Upcoming 16mm feature-film shows include The Lost World November 29th, and in December, parts 1 & 2 of Fritz Lang's epic Spiders (it's apparently the season for Lang's silent epics as the Castro shows Metropolis tonight digitally and the Berkeley Underground Film Society brings Die Nibelungen in two parts tonight and tomorrow), and finally for 2014, the delightful Colleen Moore film I dragged my family to the last time a Niles Saturday show fell on Christmas, Ella Cinders.

But one-reel and two-reel films that were the specialty of a studio like the one in Niles a hundred years ago, and programs made up of these are particularly popular today. Every month the museum programs at least one Saturday of silent comedy (November 22 is Chaplin in The Rink, Buster Keaton in The Boat, the Thanksgiving classic Pass the Gravy and Laurel & Hardy in Leave 'Em Laughing, while December brings Chaplin's Easy Street, Keaton's The High Sign and a pair of Christmas-themed shorts Their Ain't No Santa Claus and the anarchic masterpiece Big Business.) Tonight's program is an extra-special shorts program made up entirely of films shot in Niles, most around 100 years ago, including, in addition to Broncho Billy's Wild Ride, Arthur Mackley's The Prospector, the Snakeville Comedy Versus Sledge Hammers, and the first Chaplin film made entirely in the town back in 1915, The Champion.

The exception to the 100-years-ago rule is Broncho Billy and the Bandit's Secret, a brand-new silent Western shot in Niles with a genuine Bell & Howell 2709 hand-cranked camera (formerly used by John Korty) and starring Christopher Green, Bruce Cates, former silent-era child star Diana Serra Cary, and a slew of Western-garbed re-enactors. This film has screened in workprints and other preliminary versions before, but tonight is the official premiere of the finalized version at the Edison!

Tomorrow the Edison will host a screening of a independently-produced talking picture made in Niles in 2007. From the museum's press release:  
Weekend King is a romantic comedy filmed in Niles about a California dot-commer who buys a bankrupt town in rural Utah. Rupert is rich, but awkward, friendless, and loveless. In a quest to overcome his loneliness, Rupert expects to lord over the New Spring Utah populace, but ends up contending with people who don't buy into his newly invented confidence. But grappling with his bad investment turns out to be the key for finally finding friendship and love. See local characters in cameos in the local haunts including Joe's Corner, the Vine Cafe, the Mudpuddle Shop, and Belvoir Springs Hotel.
Before both days' screenings, there will be a free Walking Tour of Niles. This 75-minute tour will take you around downtown Niles and its neighborhoods, telling you tales of times gone by including film locations for the films being shown during the movie weekend. Nationally-recognized film historian David Kiehn, who is the film museum's resident expert on the Essanay film company, also knows his stuff about local buildings and historic sites. His walking tours always attract a crowd. This event is free but donations are gladly accepted.
HOW: All of tonight's films screen in 35mm prints with live music by Frederick Hodges.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

City of Sadness (1989)

Screen shot of City of Sadness clip from Music Box Films DVD of The Story of Film
WHO: Hou Hsiao-Hsien directed this.

WHAT: Almost certainly the most widely-acclaimed of Hou's seventeen feature films. As I wrote on this blog after my first viewing of City of Sadness back in 2009:
Every shot in the film is impeccably framed and lit, each scene impeccably staged, often in a way that stresses the relationship between the weight of history and the ordinary life of citizens living it. For example. As a group of students or intellectuals sit and debate politics, Wen-ching and pretty, young Hinomi (played by Xin Shufen) sit to the side of the room, exchanging notes with each other while a folk song plays on the phonograph. Hou situates his camera in the space between the table of students and the clearly smitten couple. It could be a point-of-view shot from the position of one of the debaters, but that seems unlikely. The students are swept up in their discussion and do not seem to be paying attention to the room's other occupants and their activities. No, this shot isolates the spirited discussion from the would-be lovers' attempts to lead a normal life unhindered by the intrusions of politics. At least for this moment, the two are able to exist in their own world; this sense is accentuated as the sound of the conversation subtly drops out and all we hear are sonorous musical notes as they are released from the record grooves. 
WHERE/WHEN: Screens today only at the Pacific Film Archive at 7:00 PM.

WHY: As excited as I was that the PFA had programmed a full Hou Hsiao-Hsien retrospective this Fall, I must admit I've attended far less frequently than I'd hoped. I forget that Fall is always by far the busiest time of the year for me when it comes to non-movie-related responsibilities, and that even screenings I wish with the whole fiber of my being I could attend, often slip through my fingers. I fear I may have missed my last-ever chance to see 35mm prints of highly-acclaimed films like A Summer At Grandpa's or A Time To Live and A Time To Die but I'm glad to at least have been able to view three exceedingly rare items in Hou's early filmography. His second film Cheerful Wind, made in his "pop cinema" period, was no masterpiece but had a fascinating reflexive quality as it followed a commercial film crew on location in a small Taiwanese village. The Boys From Fengkuei, his fourth feature, was a brilliant statement of autobiography and independence that launched Hou's long phase of working almost exclusively with non-professional actors, and feels like a thematic template for another Taiwan auteur's debut, Tsai Ming-Liang's Rebels of a Neon God. And Dust in the Wind, Hou's seventh feature, lives up to its reputation as one of Hou's most formally controlled and emotionally heartbreaking works.

Kathy Gertitz, the curator who organized the PFA's participation in this touring series, has been emphasizing in her introductions for these screenings the difficulty of including Hou's ninth and tenth feature films, City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster, in the retrospective due to rights issues that have kept them out of American cinemas in recent years (although the PFA did show City of Sadness, at least, in 2010, I'm almost certain The Puppetmaster has not been seen in a Frisco Bay cinema since 2000). To screen these particular films, the PFA would have to keep the showings entirely non-commercial and educational in nature, which means the tickets are all free, and Friday's The Puppetmaster showing will include an introduction and book-signing by Richard Suchenski, a Hou expert who has recently edited a lovely volume of essays on the director.  Initially the plan was to only offer tickets to tonight and tomorrow's showings to Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive members who signed up in advance, but in the past weeks the PFA has decided to offer remaining tickets on a first-come, first-served basis to anyone who arrives at the door starting at 6PM each evening. So head on over to Berkeley and experience a pair of 35mm screenings that, unless some legal wrangling is able to be managed in the near future, are very unlikely to repeat themselves anytime soon.

HOW: The entire PFA Hou Hsiao-Hsien series screens via 35mm prints from here on out.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Movie (1958)

Screen shot from digital transfer of Facets VHS release.
WHO: Bruce Conner made this.

WHAT: Conner didn't bother with warning shots. His first film was a torpedo fired directly at moving image culture as it was in the late 1950s, and honestly as it still is today. Though it wasn't the first film to have been constructed completely out of pre-existing film material (Joseph Cornell's Rose Hobart beat it by 32 years, and Soviet filmmakers like Dziga Vertov and Esfir Shub had preceded Cornell) it was probably the first to do so with such exuberantly rapid editing and biting humor, in tribute to a memorable moment from the final reel of Leo McCarey's Duck Soup. Today Conner's aesthetic feels familiar and perhaps even stale on a single viewing, at least to those of us raised on music videos and popular compilations that "normalize" Conner's then-radical strategies. But multiple viewings reveal more about the film. Kevin Hatch has written:
With each encounter, the rhythm of the editing appears more natural and the shot selection less arbitrary, until the film's logic becomes intuitively evident. With each viewing of the film, we become accustomed to the abrupt breaks between shots and more comfortable allowing them to reveal unexpected formal relationships and trigger involuntary mnemonic associations. What at first appears chaotic comes to seem, with repeated viewing, compulsively ordered.
Hatch spends quite a bit of time going into more detail on A Movie in his book Looking For Bruce Conner, but one thing he neglects to mention are the dissolves that appear in the last few minutes of the film; previously all edits were of the simple cut-and-splice variety that reconcile with Conner's recollections of having used only the most rudimentary tools of "a little splicer and a rewind and a viewer" to make his earliest films. But in 1958 it was possible to instruct a film lab to insert a dissolve into a print when processing it, for a small fee, so it seems likely that Conner exploited this option to create images like the above crossfade from a smoldering volcano to a ecclesiastical coronation.

WHERE/WHEN: A Movie screens tonight at 7:00 at the Pacific Film Archive.

WHY: Though it's hard to find many bright spots in yesterday's election results, I did enjoy a reminder, through a glance at the facebook page of the proprietor of the Black Hole Cinematheque in Oakland, that Bruce Conner in 1967 ran a losing campaign for Supervisor that garnered more votes than some recent winners of Supervisor races have (though at the time elections were citywide rather than district-by-district, and therefore unfair to compare). As I wrote in a 2006 blog on Conner, his campaign speech was nothing more than a list of sweets.

I can think of no better cinematic post-election hangover cure than to see a Bruce Conner movie and a Craig Baldwin movie on the same bill. Baldwin's Tribulation 99 screens after A Movie tonight at the PFA, making a near-complete piecemeal retrospective of the living legend of San Francisco underground curation and filmmaking in the last few months, after terrific screenings of Mock Up On Mu, Sonic Outlaws and more at Artists' Television Access back in September. Tribulation 99 is probably Baldwin's most quintessential and essential film, and he'll be at the theatre to discuss it with anyone who dares to attend.

Tonight's program is part of the PFA's Alternative Visions series of experimental films, which winds down this month with shows devoted to Polish artist Pawel Wojtasik and to recent experimental films made by filmmakers who I'm guessing would probably acknowledge a debt to Conner in their own work. Many of them would likely acknowledge a debt to Baldwin as well, but probably none as vociferously as Linda Scobie, whose playful collage Craig's Cutting Room Floor is a 16mm film-assemblage of just what it describes: the material found beneath Baldwin's feet as he works in the editing room.

These may be the last three strictly experimental film programs at the PFA for a while, as recent tradition has held that the Alternative Visions series has been a Fall-only program with Spring devoted to cutting-edge documentary. With the PFA closing after July 2015, to re-open in a new, more BART-friendly, location in 2016, if the pattern holds it may be a couple years before we get a shot at seeing this kind of material in Berkeley again. Although there are some who would consider Jean-Luc Godard's films (especially his more recent ones) to be experimental films as well, and the PFA promises to continue with their retrospective of his work next Spring (presumably to culminate in his newest Goodbye To Language 3D, which in the meantime premieres locally next week in San Rafael). The current installment of this Godard retro covers his 1982-1994 work, and starts with his masterpiece Passion this Saturday. I'm pleased that a greater proportion of this segment of the Godard series is screening via 35mm prints than did in the last segment focusing on the 1970s. In fact the lion's share of the PFA's November-December calendar is 35mm, including everything in the Hou Hsiao-Hsien series, nearly everything in the Georgian film series that will also continue into 2015, and more than you might expect in the political documentary series entitled I’m Weiwei: Activism, Free Expression, Human Rights.

Of course the PFA is not the only place to show experimental films in the Bay Area; far from it in fact, when there's an organization like SF Cinematheque entering into a particularly busy month including tomorrow's Castro Theatre(!) screening of Andy Warhol's dual-projection epic Chelsea Girls and Friday's YBCA showing of Warhol's Hedy, both with fascinating and eloquent Factory star Mary Woronov in person, its annual art (and film) auction and benefit November 15th, and much more.

HOW: A Movie and Tribulation 99 both screen from 16mm prints in the PFA's own collection.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

To Have And Have Not (1944)

Screen shot from Warner DVD
WHO: Lauren Bacall made her first on-screen appearance in this film, playing Marie 'Slim' Browning.

WHAT: This Casablanca-esque romantic adventure is perhaps not quite as purely entertaining as its 1942 predecessor, but it's arguably "greater", and endlessly more analyzable, as a quintessential Howard Hawks directorial project, as an Ernest Hemingway adaptation (co-written by no less than William Faulkner!), as an expression of American wartime philosophy, and as the genesis of the long romance between its stars Bacall and Bogart, who met on the picture. Here's Manohla Dargis writing in the New York Times about one very memorable moment:
If the movie’s political backdrop tends to go missing in the mists of the Bogart and Bacall legend — they fell in love during its making — it’s understandable given how they steam up the joint. Before teaching him how to whistle, Slim slides into Steve’s lap and leans down to kiss him. “Whaddya do that for?” he says, as if the question needed asking. “Been wondering whether I’d like it,” she says. He asks her verdict. She murmurs “I don’t know yet” before going in for another try. This time, he pulls her close, his hand circling her neck, and they kiss deeper and longer. She stops, pulls back and stands, taking the camera with her, and delivers the film’s other great line: “It’s even better when you help.”
WHERE/WHEN: 7:50 PM tonight only at the Castro Theatre.

WHY: The Castro yesterday revealed the front page of its full October calendar, just in time for the month to begin. It's a typically eclectic mix of Halloween-ish favorites of various kinds, new restorations of classics, 2014 hits in one-night-only "second-run", and memorial tributes to recently deceased film personalities. The latter includes not only Bacall, who stars in six films playing the venue this month (all but one, How to Marry a Millionaire, showing in 35mm prints), but also Richard Attenborough, who directed Gandhi, which screens (digitally) Sunday October 5th. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Harold Ramis already have received Castro tributes this year, but they show up again in October as well; Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man October 22 and Ramis in Ghostbusters October 24th. James Garner has yet to have an official screen tribute in San Francisco this year, but we can look ahead to November 7th when Jesse Hawthorne Ficks screens The Notebook (along with John Cassavetes' Minnie and Moskowitz) for an at-least-unofficial one.

For October, Ficks's MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS series brings a Christian Bale double-feature of Reign of Fire and The Dark Knight on Friday the 17th. Naturally both will be screened on 35mm; the latter being an opportune time to revisit the signature hit by Hollywood's perhaps most powerful film-on-film proponent (with apologies to Quentin Tarantino) Christopher Nolan in advance of his 70mm IMAX release Interstellar (rumored to be the last "real" IMAX film in the pipeline).

As of now the Castro website has not revealed the formats for most films screening after the 17th; we know that Carrie, The Bad Seed, Village of the Damned, Spartacus, Sunrise, and The Fugitive Kind will screen from 35mm prints while Vertigo and Rome: Open City will see their Castro debuts in 4K digital projection, but I'm unsure as yet whether film is involved in the Alphaville/Orpheus double bill October 21st (I suspect no), The Black Cat/The Raven October 23rd (I suspect yes) or 2001: A Space Odyssey/The Tree of Life October 26th (I don't want to speculate). The Bay Area Film Calendar and the Castro seem to be oddly at odds over the October 18th Bernardo Bertolucci marathon; the former indicates only the Italian master's Last Tango in Paris and The Sheltering Sky will be in 35mm, while the Castro's Special Events page adds The Conformist to that pool. The new, seemingly-unnecessary-but-I-suppose-I-should-keep-an-open-mind 3D version of The Last Emperor will screen digitally of course. Joan Chen is expected to be in attendance.

Finally, looking ahead again to November (in this case the 6th), SF Cinematheque is presenting its first Castro event in quite some time, a dual-16mm screening of Andy Warhol's The Chelsea Girls with the hugely-entertaining former "Factory Girl"  Mary Woronov in person, as she will be the following night with Warhol's Hedy at Yerba Buena Center For the Arts. I'm preparing for those screenings by attending tonight's Pacific Film Archive presentation of another Warhol dual-16mm film called Outer and Inner Space; otherwise I'd surely be at the Castro tonight for To Have and Have Not.

HOW: 35mm print, on a double-bill wih Dark Passage, another Bacall/Bogie team-up, but one particularly dear to Frisco Bay hearts as it was actually filmed here.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Screen shot from Kino DVD
WHO: Robert Weine directed this

WHAT: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is huge in cinema history and in my own personal history with cinema. It's frequently (incorrectly) cited as the first horror movie, and its iconic imagery has been borrowed shamelessly by other filmmakers from the silent era to Tim Burton and beyond. With few of its director's other films available for view, it generally frustrates auteurists, especially those highly influenced by the theories of realism put forth by the influential French critic Andre Bazin, who labeled Caligari a "failure" under his criteria for worthy photographic art. 

When I first became interested in exploring silent film history many years, ago, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was one of the first films from the era that made a very strong and immediate impression upon initial viewing. Though I was watching a rather muddy VHS transfer, I loved what I saw, and became a little obsessed. I read about every article or book I could find about it (including David Robinson's excellent monograph), purchased an 8mm print on ebay (my first and ever such purchase, even though I didn't have a projector at the time) and even dressed as the somnambulist for Halloween that year (immortalized in a photograph I've recently cycled in as my twitter avatar). 

WHERE/WHEN: 9PM tonight at the Castro Theatre, presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

WHY: Since my first viewing I've taken a few opportunities to see the film when it's screened in local cinemas (which happens less often than you might expect, actually), and have seen it projected from an even muddier video transfer at the Castro accompanied by the local ensemble Club Foot Orchestra, and have seen a 1950s-era retitled 35mm version at the Pacific Film Archive with Judith Rosenberg at the piano and accompanied by a lecture by film scholar Russell Merritt, who has just joined the board of the Silent Film Festival. 

None of these viewings, or of the DVD viewings I've also experienced in the interim, have been afforded use of a new 4K sprucing of the best original elements. This version premiered in Berlin earlier in 2014, and tonight is the US premiere. It's also the first time I'll be able to view a 4K digital file projected through the Castro's recent acquisition, a 4K projector to replace the 2K one they've had for several years and which had recently developed an "undead pixel" problem (which is even scarier than it sounds). Although I wish the Murnau Foundation would have made a 35mm print available of this new restoration, I'm curious to see what 4K projection at the Castro might look like when applied to a classic film that I'm very familiar with.

Tonight's screening is the capper to a full day of Silent Film Festival shows, the entirety of which have been enthusiastically rounded-up by my friend Michael Hawley of the film-415 blog (which I hope he never has to change to film-628). 35mm screenings for this all-day even include the 11AM program of Laurel & Hardy two-reelers, and the 7PM showing of Buster Keaton's The General with live musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra (who last performed this at the Castro in 2004- I was there and was very impressed by how a percussion-heavy score helps amp up the action-adventure elements of the classic Keaton comedy.) The Alloys' 3PM world-premiere presentation of their new, years-in-the-making score to Rudoph Valentino's allegedly best film Son of the Sheik will be sourced from a DCP, as will the BFI's A Night in the Cinema in 1914 show.

HOW: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari screens as a 4K DCP, with live music by the versatile keyboardist Donald Sosin. I've heard his eerie score for the Kino DVD and am very interested in hearing how he transforms it in a live environment.