Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Good as Gold

I’ll admit it: Despite the waste and corruption that often go hand-and-hand with their undertaking, I am easily seduced by the Olympics.  Given that coverage (live or tape delayed) often occurs round-the-clock, the looming Summer Games in Rio de Janiero will prove to be an extraordinary temptation over the next 2 weeks, especially for this perpetual early riser.  Although I love watching the relatively obscure sports that are often broadcast in those pre-dawn hours, I’ll inevitably watch some track & field, too—races that often get front-and-center attention in the TV coverage, not only because the US always does very well in them, but because of the natural mythology around naming “The World’s Fastest Human” in the 100-meter dash.
Certainly, Track & Field has played a more prominent part in movies about the Summer Olympics than any other sport—most recently with the historical drama Race (Hopkins, 2016) about Jesse Owens in the 1936 games.  While not the first black athlete to medal in the 100m, his victory that year (exactly 80 years ago today) carried enormous symbolic weight because the games were held in Berlin under the shadow of Hitler and orchestrated by Joseph Goebbels and the propaganda arm of the Third Reich.  In defiance of the host country’s insistence that no Jewish or “Negro” athletes compete, Owens’ 4 gold medals struck a powerful blow against the dogma of racial superiority that was a driving engine of the Nazi Party.
The movie isn’t bad.  Stephan James is good in the lead role, and the story is an important one.  Predictably, the double meaning of the title is a prominent theme, since not only did Owens face systemic prejudice at Ohio State (where the movie begins), but he felt enormous pressure from the NAACP not to compete in Berlin as a gesture of protest against how African-Americans were still being oppressed in the US.  Although the horrific explicitness of that racism isn’t depicted as vividly as it was in 42, the movie follows many of the same beats as that recent (superior) Jackie Robinson film.  There’s even a scene where German runner Luz Long befriends Jesse in front of the entire stadium of Germans (and the Fuhrer) that echoes what southerner Pee Wee Reese would do with teammate Jackie in Cincinnati decades later.  Long’s scene with Owens in private after their race is perhaps the best in the film—two athletes with deep mutual respect acknowledging the role they’re each playing as propaganda tools of their governments.  But like many movies dedicated to recreating real events, the other characterizations are cookie-cutter and the final result is more of a history lesson than an emotionally engaging drama.
What’s interesting about the film, though, is that its story directly links to the two most celebrated films about the Summer Olympics: Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938) and Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire (1981).  The connection with the former is obvious.  Riefenstahl (played by Black Book’s Carice van Houten) was perhaps the most prominent female film director in the world at the time and is an important character in the movie.  While commissioned by Goebbels as a tribute to the wonders of a modern Germany (we see the two of them watch rushes of her coverage), Riefenstahl went beyond that short-sighted mandate and redefined cinematic language when it came to form and athletics in ways that are now commonplace on ESPN and advertising today.  It’s still a problematic film, with the ever-present swastikas and the specter of the Holocaust around the corner, but it’s not a paean to National Socialism the way the country’s leaders might have hoped for.  Her eye transcends the politics of the piece, even if it can't divorce itself from it completely.  And she doesn’t give short shrift to Owens’ accomplishments either.  In a scene in Race where Riefenstahl asks Owens to help her shoot some pick-ups for his Gold medal Long Jump that would later be inserted into her film, they have this exchange:
Jesse: Isn’t that cheating?
Leni: Cheating?
Jesse: Yeah.  I’m just saying it’s not the actual jump I made.
Leni: You did make that jump.  We all saw it.  You made history out there.  All I’m doing is making sure years from now, those people who weren’t there can see it too.  ‘Cause they’ll never forget what you did.
And she did.  And we haven’t.  Riefenstahl is one of the most complex figures in movie history, and one of my favorite documentaries is about her: The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (Muller, 1993).  In it, the film doesn’t blink at the insidious contribution she made to the Nazis’ ascendancy through her notorious film The Triumph of the Will.  But it also shows in the many decades after WWII that she was smart, resourceful, innovative, gutsy, and supremely talented.  Perhaps the best you can say about her is that she was a fervid aesthetician who lived in denial about how her gifts were exploited for evil.  Other judgments, far harsher, would be equally fair.  But this exchange in the film also brings the conversation about myth-making in an ironic full circle, because Owens’ legacy is also helped immeasurably by her film.
The connective tissue between Race and Chariots of Fire is interesting, too.  Larry Snyder (SNL’s Jason Sudekis) was Owens’ coach at Ohio State, and also on the US Track & Field team that competed against Brits Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell in the 1924 Paris games.  We even see a picture of Snyder with Charlie Paddock (played by Dennis Christopher In Chariots).  Sadly, Snyder was in a plane crash weeks before the games and never competed.  But he did go on to coach the US team in Helsinki (1952) and Rome (1960).
Abrahams, like Owens 12 years later, won the 100m (his time was 10.6 seconds; Owens, 10.3).  The film shows that he dedicated his athletic pursuits to fight the antisemitism he faced in the English establishment.  This resonates in Race because on the eve of the 100x4 relay in Berlin, the US benched its two Jewish runners out of deference to the Germans.  Owens ended up subbing in that race and there is a powerful scene where his teammates talk to him about what a victory would mean to them, watching from the sidelines.  They won, of course.  Although Chariots doesn’t depict it, Abrahams also won a medal in the 4x100 (a silver) in Paris.
I think Chariots often gets a bad rap.  It does have a bit of Masterpiece Theater stuffiness about it, but it also does address religion (Abraham’s Judaism and Liddell’s Christianity) in ways that you rarely see in mainstream movies anymore—with thoughtfulness, sincerity, and lack of piety.  Vangelis’ iconic synthesizer score manages to be anachronistic but still mines emotional depths.  It’s the only Oscar nomination Ian Holm has ever received (an oversight bordering on the criminal).  Its period details are meticulous (lacking starting blocks, the runners use small trowels to dig in footholds before the race, something we see Owens do in Race, too).  And with the recent Star Trek reboots, there’s a perverse delight in seeing Spock’s father (Ben Cross) and the Borg Queen (Alice Krige) fall in love.  Plus it was my first introduction, at 11 years old, to Scotland, and I’ll admit to thinking of Liddell training across the lush countryside when 20 years later, I hiked up to Arthur’s Seat, the mountain peak overlooking Edinburgh.  
There are also a couple of postage stamp references worth noting in Chariots.  When Abrahams is enrolled in Cambridge (somewhere I’ve also visited), we see him and future Olympian teammate Aubrey Montague signing up for various extra-curricular activities.
Harold (to Aubrey): “Rugby club, golfing society, tennis, squash club, flora and fauna!, philately—is that all?  You’re idle, man.  Idle!”
So stamp collecting was a viable academic pastime back then.  A few seconds later, we see a sign for another club: The Cinematic Club.  Given that the date is 1919, it strikes me as perhaps a little early for such a club, especially for a medium that was still associated with the lower classes at the time, not the halls of privilege.  Plus, even the most hardcore cinephile would be hard-pressed to name a notable British silent film up to that time (unlike other parts of Europe).
The second stamp reference comes a little later.  The film has already used Aubrey’s letters to his mother as a narrative framing device for the film.  Now, in Scotland, Sandy—a friend to the Liddells—makes a toast to the family, most of whom are returning to their missionary work in China, where Eric (Ian Charleson) was born.
Mrs. Liddell: I’m relying on you now to keep them all out of mischief.
Sandy: Oh, that I will, Mrs. L.  And if they do transgress, I’ll pop the details on a postcard and you can read all about it before you can say "Marco Polo".
Eric: Cost you a fortune in postage stamps.
Tragically, Ian Charleson and Brad Davis, who plays American Olympian Jackson Scholz, would be dead within a decade, both from AIDS.   
The Jesse Owens Olympic stamp is Scott # 2496.  He never competed in the hurdles in the Olympics, but the stamp commemorating his records set in the US, part of the Celebrate the Century series, is Scott # 3185j. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

She Certainly Can Cannes-Cannes

When people (quickly) discover what a big cinephile I am, the question I get the most often (besides “What’s your favorite movie?”) is “Have you been to Sundance?”  And they’re invariably surprised when I tell them No.  After all, isn’t that what cinephiles do?  Isn’t Cannes our Mecca?  But honestly, I’m not interested in going and never really have been.  The newest incarnation of this query is the Turner Classic Movies Festival every spring.  I’m a regular on #TCMParty, have met dozens of fabulous film fans from around the US on that hashtag, and even am lucky enough to have TCM follow me on Twitter.  But I’m guessing I’ll probably never go to that, either.

This year will be my seventh working for the Mill Valley Film Festival.  But long before that, I’ve been going to local film festivals, most notably The San Francisco International Film Festival.  So I love the energy film fans bring to a screening.  I'm excited by the marathon days, the triangulation of schedules across multiple venues, the bustling from one show to the next.  In particular, I love that festivals are usually the only place you can see short films projected, which I consumed voraciously long before it became my job to program them.

But destination film festivals have held little appeal to me.  As much as I love travel and movies, they’ve very rarely overlapped in my life.  When I’m somewhere new, foreign, different, I want to explore the landscape, not hole up in a theater.  I’ve seen movies in England and Ecuador when I was living there, and once in Thailand because the humidity was so oppressive, it was the easiest way to cool off (it was one of the Bourne films), but otherwise, my travels meant seeing parks and museums and centers of culture and history, never movies.  And that’s what it’d be like if I was in the south of France or Park City, too.

Some of it is also the cost.  Festivals can be expensive on their own, let alone the additional price tag of planes, hotels, food, etc.  The one festival I have been to outside the Bay Area was SXSW, and that was because I’d visited Austin already and my all-access badge was paid for.  But everything else on that trip still made a huge dent on my wallet.  It was undeniably fun, but not something I had any wish to make a habit of.  And that’s why I can’t see myself spending money to stay in LA for a week for TCM, no matter how great the crowd, the guest list or the program schedule might be.

There are lots of different types of festival patrons, too.  Some love to see the big stars, the legends or masters or household names.  Some people are drawn to the First Look appeal—the chance to see a film weeks or months before anyone else.  Festivals count on that kind of star-power draw and name recognition, and I totally get that.  But that’s not what draws me.  I love festivals for the chance to see films I’ll never see anywhere else, arthouse or otherwise.  Guests are great and Q&As can often be illuminating and memorable, but that’s not the reason I go.

And that’s why, given a choice, I’d always prefer SFIFF over TCM (whose schedules overlap annually).  Because I live in the Bay Area, there’s no shortage of classic films available on the big screen here.  Here’s a list of all the films that screened in June in a theater within 40 minutes of me that were made at least 40 years ago:

The Gold Rush (Chaplin, 25)
Behind the Front (Sutherland, 26)
Nell Gwyn (Wilcox, 26)
The Scarlet Letter (Sjostrom, 26)
The Big Broadcast (Tuttle, 32)
White Zombie (Halperin, 32)
Duck Soup (McCarey, 33)
The Crime of Doctor Crespi (Auer, 35)
The Great Garrick (Whale, 37)
Four’s a Crowd (Curtiz, 38)
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (Curtiz, 39)
The Long Voyage Home (Ford, 40)
Santa Fe Trail (Curtiz, 40)
Hold Back the Dawn (Leisen, 41)
They Died with Their Boots On (Walsh, 41)
Double Indemnity (Wilder, 44)
The Dark Mirror (Siodmak, 46)
His Sister’s Secret (Ulmer, 46)
La Otra (Gavaldon, 46)
To Each His Own (Leisen, 46)
The First Legion (Sirk, 51)
The Forbidden Christ (Malaparte, 51)
Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock, 51)
The Lusty Men (Ray, 52)
The Devil’s Money (Galindo, 53)
Roman Holiday (Wyler, 53)
Giant (Stevens, 56)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Brooks, 58)
Suddenly, Last Summer (Mankiewicz, 59)
Butterfield 8 (Mann, 60)
La Dolce Vita (Fellini, 60)
The Great Race (Edwards, 65)
Tokyo Drifter (Suzuki, 66)
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Nichols, 66)
Spring Night, Summer Night (Anderson, 67)
The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Straub/Huillet, 68)
Dillinger is Dead (Ferreri, 69)
The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah, 69)
Two-Lane Blacktop (Hellman, 71)
Fat City (Huston, 72)
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Peckinpah, 74)
The Sugerland Express (Spielberg, 74)
Kings of the Road (Wenders, 76)

And that's not even including the SF Silent Film Festival, which featured 16 features--including films by Ozu, Clair, Lang, Lubitsch, Fleming, Micheaux, and Wellman's Beggars of Life, starring Louise Brooks--and even more shorts. 

TCM fans are drawn to their festival by the opportunity to see those classic films on the big screen (many of which I already have), by the stars, the interviews, and the camaraderie.  And I don't doubt for a second that I would have a lot of fun in their company.

But there are far more things I would feel I missed out on by not attending SFIFF--new foreign treasures, innovative docs, experimental shorts I'll never see anywhere else.  Every month is like a TCM festival living here in the Bay Area anyway--beautiful Art Deco houses, or film archive theaters, or dungeon-like screening rooms specializing in 16mm arcana--so I save my pennies (or rather, maximize their cinematic heft) by staying put.  There are still a lot of places in the world I want to visit.  But movies have very little to do with any of them.  Which suits me fine.

The Ingrid Bergman stamp is Scott # 5012 .  The stamp of Aaron Douglas's painting The Prodigal Son (Scott # 4748g) is part of the "Modern Art in America" series.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

SFIFF59 Round-Up

With 17 features and 60 shorts screened, this was definitely the most productive SFIFF I’d ever attended.  The POV award to Aardman Animation (with guest Peter Lord) accounted for 1/3 of that short tally, with an impressive survey of the studio’s output since its inception 40 years ago.  While Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep are the most famous franchises they’ve created, this fantastic collection they screened covered not only their familiar stop-motion style but some really wonderful cel and CG creative efforts, too.

The short collections have always been my favorite part of SFIFF and this year had some very strong programs, including two shorts in particular that really blew me away.  Brouillard #14 is an experimental film that used in-camera double exposures of the same nature path traveled over and over again to yield a phenomenal explosion of color, creating a throbbing pointillism effect that evoked both the density and illusory quality of memory in a way I’d never seen before.  And Night without Distance used simple film negative imagery to create an extraordinary other-worldly effect as men with guns posted as silent sentries in a remote landscape.  It was a short that was beautiful, tense, immersive, subtle, sometimes disorienting, and endlessly fascinating.  I can’t imagine either of these remotely having the same effect as a Vimeo link so keep your eye out on the festival circuit in case they screen anywhere near you.

As for the features, it’s always interesting to see what kinds of trends and motifs recur across various titles quite inadvertently (since what I see is often based as much on geography and scheduling as it is on my specific interests).  So here are some thematic trios that emerged:

Deconstructing masculine tropes in slyly humorous fashion was the main order of business in the Greek Chevalier and South Korean Right Now, Wrong Then.  In the former, from Athina Rachel Tsangari (who was also part of a fun Q&A), a small pleasure cruise turns into the S.S. Oneupsman ship as a group of men try to determine who’s the Best among them by contriving more absurd and arbitrary contests to compete in.  In Hong Sang-soo’s latest, two parallel stories follow a hapless film director as he courts the same woman to very different effect as we’re reminded that love and chemistry often rely on the most unlikely variables and not on us putting our best feet forward.  By contrast, the man-child of the Spanish The Apostate has his own problems he hasn’t sorted out, but while the lead (Alvaro Ogalla, another SFIFF attendee) is fun, his religious change-of-heart is so low-stakes and frustratingly flimsy that it was hard for me to care if any of his issues are resolved.

In opposition to this were some exceptional and unnerving films with women forced to confront some internal and external demons.  To call Under the Shadow an Iranian Babadook is no slight, since it’s still very scary and nerve-wrecking as a mother and child during the Iran-Iraq war confront a phantom that’s born not from an emotional trauma but a political one.  The Swedish Granny’s Dancing on the Table is a dark tale of a young girl using her family history (rendered to wonderful effect by rough-hewn stop-motion animation) and her own resourcefulness to survive her single father’s brutal oppressiveness in the wilderness.  As for the German Wild, my favorite feature of the festival, a young office worker’s obsession with a wolf devolves into a full feral transformation (or actualization).  Call it a lupine Repulsion or 50 Shades of White Fang, but it’s riveting, uncompromising storytelling.

In addition to Granny, animation is also used to clever effect in Penny Lane’s bizarre biopic NUTS!, the story of an early 20th-century media pioneer and medical quack who builds a very unlikely empire.  A simple animation style is used to do most of the dramatic heavy-lifting (in historical reenactments) and while the film mines the absurdity of this man’s life well, a third-act inversion is as inevitable as it is tonally unsatisfying.  Better is Lewis Klahr’s dizzying evocation of the 60s in Sixty Six, where he uses collage animation, including cut-outs from period comic books (like those pictured below) to convey his own strange mythologies, melancholy memories, and affectionate paeans to the period and pop culture.  Very personal, sometimes even impenetrably so, but unquestionably vivid and unique.

Sixty Six was not the only feature to take liberties with traditional narrative structure.  Otar Iosseliani’s Winter Song is a loose and limber free association piece about an assortment of Parisians whose paths cross in countless variations, all with playful anarchic panache.  Famed cinematographer Chris Doyle’s Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous doesn’t work as well.  Despite being resolutely affectionate to the different generations of the city, it often feels too eager to please and the sober political shadow of the protests that serve as a hub of the action jars with the whimsy that often feels forced.

In addition to NUTS!, there were a couple other films I saw that had medical concerns as their focus.  The deeply compassionate Czech Home Care chronicles a nurse who is diagnosed with cancer and must confront her own mortality as she explores alternative solutions to her condition.  This was also the most lively Q&A I attended, with director Slavek Horak, equipped with plum brandy, giving a shot to each audience member who asked him a question.  But even more thoughtful was the documentary Haveababy, which approaches a fertility clinic’s lottery with objective ambivalence as assorted “contestants” vie for the opportunity to create a family, with results both happy and heart-breaking.

And no SFIFF would be complete without the archival screenings.  New to me was Cast  a Dark Shadow (Gilbert, 1955), with the irrepressibly sleazy gold-digger Dirk Bogarde biting off more than he can chew when his wife-killing M.O. locks horns with some very uncooperative women in his orbit.  The 20th Anniversary of The Watermelon Woman (a film I hadn’t seen since its original release) was an occasion to revisit this landmark indie film about identity politics and see how much in the film industry hasn’t changed when it comes to inclusion and ready acceptance.  The deft meta-language of its reframing of film history is now fairly commonplace while black lesbian representation is still sadly outside the mainstream’s comfort level.  Kudos to director Cheryl Dunye for an enlightening Q&A.  And to round things out was the dense discord of Mercury Rev & Simon Raymonde who treated Dreyer’s classic Vampyr (1932) like a silent film in their musical accompaniment, giving it a whole new dimension of creepy.

But the archival highlight was Nick Park’s (1993), still one of the greatest animated films ever made and a film I dearly love but hadn’t seen on the big screen since it first came out.  It’s a wonderful heist film with one of the greatest silent nemesis ever portrayed, the stoic, sinister penguin, which is why I added the penguin stamp to the Wallace & Gromit card above (even though he doesn’t appear in their Oscar-winning feature film).  The short also features a few stamps itself, when Gromit sifts through the mail and opens his birthday card.  


The train, of course, foreshadows one of the great film chases in the climax and sharp-eyed Aardman fans will recognize the puma from Creature Comforts on display in the museum (a set that I once saw on display in the National Media Museum in Branford, UK).

Top 10 SFIFF features (non-archival)

1. Wild (Krebitz, 2016)
2. Granny's Dancing on the Table (Skold, 2015)
3. Chevalier (Tsangari, 2015)
4. Haveababy (Micheli, 2016)
5. Winter Song (Iosseliani, 2015)
6. Under the Shadow (Anvari, 2015)
7. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong, 2015)
8. Neon Bull (Mascaro, 2015)
9. Sixty Six (Klahr, 2015)
10. Home Care (Horak, 2015)

Top 10 SFIFF shorts (non-Aardman)

1. Night without Distance (Patino, 2015)
2. Brouillard #14 (Larose, 2013)
3. Edmond (Gantz, 2015)
4. Jaaji Approx (Hopinka, 2015)
5. Extremis (Krauss, 2016)
6. Partners (Imbach, 2015)
7. When You Awake (Rosenblatt, 2016)
8. False Start (Barrada, 2015)
9. Manoman (Cartwright, 2015)
10. Bob Dylan Hates Me (Zahedi, 2016)

Top 10 Aardman shorts

1. The Wrong Trousers (Park, 1993)
2. The Pearce Sisters (Cook, 2007)
3. Winter Trees (Freed/Freed, 2012)
4. Sledgehammer (Johnson, 1986)
5. Dot (Sumo Science, 2010)
6. Creature Comforts (Park, 1989)
7. The Flight of the Stories (Dubicki, 2014)
8. Going Equipped (Lord, 1990)
9. Full ANL (Burrascano, 2015)
10. Shaun the Sheep: 3DTV (Grace/Wilton, 2014)

The Scott #s for the stamps pictured:

Year of the Dog - 3895j
Sealed with Love - 4741
Where Dreams Blossom - 4764
Penguins - 4989
Quilled Paper Heart - 5036

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Desert Island 100

The challenge: Pick my favorite feature film each year from 1924-2015.  Add 8 more shorts spread out over that period to make an even 100.  Here's what I picked.  Links are to other blog entries on those films.  What would your list look like?

1924 Greed (von Stroheim)
1925 The Gold Rush (Chaplin)
1926 The General (Keaton/Bruckman)

1927 The Italian Straw Hat (Clair)
1928 The Wind (Sjostrom)
1929 Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov)
1930 The Blue Angel (Sternberg)
1931 M (Lang)
1932 I Was Born, But... (Ozu)
1933 Footlight Parade (Bacon)
1934 The Thin Man (Van Dyke)
1935 Bride of Frankenstein (Whale)

1936 The Crime of M. Lange (Renoir)
1937 Shall We Dance (Sandrich)
1938 Bringing Up Baby (Hawks)
1939 Only Angels Have Wings (Hawks)
1940 Pinocchio (Sharpsteen)
1941 The Lady Eve (Sturges)
1942 Casablanca (Curtiz)
1943 The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Powell/Pressburger)
1944 Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli)
1945 Children of Paradise (Carne)

1946 Belle et la Bete (Cocteau)
1947 Black Narcissus (Powell/Pressburger)
1948 Germany, Year Zero (Rossellini)
1949 Kind Hearts and Coronets (Hamer)
1950 Winchester '73 (A. Mann)

1951 On Dangerous Ground (N. Ray)
1952 Singin' in the Rain (Donen/Kelly)
1953 The Earrings of Madame de... (Ophuls)
1954 The Seven Samurai (Kurosawa)
1955 Night of the Hunter (Laughton)
1956 Forbidden Planet (Wilcox)
1957 Sweet Smell of Success (Mackendrick)
1958 Vertigo (Hitchcock)
1959 Some Like It Hot (Wilder)
1960 La Dolce Vita (Fellini)
1961 Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais)
1962 Cleo from 5 to 7 (Varda)
1963 The Leopard (Visconti)
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Kubrick)
1965 Chimes at Midnight (Welles)
1966 The Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo)
1967 Point Blank (Boorman)
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)
1969 The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah)

1970 Days and Nights in the Forest (S. Ray)
1971 Walkabout (Roeg)
1972 The Bitter Tears of Petra van Kant (Fassbinder)
1973 The Spirit of the Beehive (Erice)
1974 Chinatown (Polanski)

1975 Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Gilliam/Jones)
1976 The Marquise of O (Rohmer)
1977 Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spielberg)

1978 The Last Waltz (Scorsese)
1979 The Black Stallion (Ballard)
1980 The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner)
1981 Pennies from Heaven (Ross)
1982 Burden of Dreams (Blank)
1983 Zelig (Allen)
1984 The Terminator (Cameron)
1985 Come and See (Klimov)
1986 The Sacrifice (Tarkovsky)
1987 Wings of Desire (Wenders)

1988 Bull Durham (Shelton)
1989 Do the Right Thing (Lee)
1990 Miller's Crossing (Coen)
1991 The Double Life of Veronique (Kieslowski)
1992 The Last of the Mohicans (M. Mann)
1993 Groundhog Day (Ramis)
1994 Ed Wood (Burton)
1995 Underground (Kusturica)
1996 Lone Star (Sayles)
1997 A Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami)
1998 Out of Sight (Soderbergh)
1999 Topsy-Turvy (Leigh)
2000 In the Mood for Love (Wong)
2001 Mulholland Dr. (Lynch)
2002 Gerry (Van Sant)
2003 Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Weir)
2004 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry)
2005 L'Enfant (Dardenne/Dardenne)
2006 Children of Men (Cuaron)
2007 Once (Carney)
2008 Man on Wire (Marsh)

2009 The White Ribbon (Haneke)
2010 Winter's Bone (Granick)
2011 The Tree of Life (Malick)
2012 Moonrise Kingdom (Anderson)
2013 Upstream Color (Carruth)
2014 Timbuktu (Sissako)
2015 Mustang (Erguven)

1929 Un Chien Andalou (Bunuel)
1933 Snow White (Fleischer)
1949 Begone Dull Care (McLaren/Lambert)
1962 Cosmic Ray (Conner)
1968 Windy Day (Hubley/Hubley)
1993 The Wrong Trousers (Park)
2000 The Heart of the World (Maddin)
2013 Just Before Losing Everything (Legrand)

Here are the Scott #s for the stamps pictured:

Devil's Tower - 1084
Water conservation - 1150
Talking Pictures - 1727
Hudson's General - 2843
Frankenstein - 3170
Cinematography - 3772g
Luke Skywalker - 4143e
James Stewart - 4197
Wedding cake - 4398
William S. Hart - 4448
John Huston - 4671
Iron worker - 4801h
Circus clown - 4905
Martin Ramirez train - 4970

Friday, February 26, 2016

My Oscar Ballot

Picture: Mad Max: Fury Road
Actor: Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Actress: Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Supporting Actor: Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Director: George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Original Screenplay: Ex Machina
Adapted Screenplay: The Big Short
Cinematography: Carol
Production Design: Mad Max: Fury Road
Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road
Costume Design: Carol
Score: Sicario
Sound Mixing: The Revenant
Sound Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road
Visual Effects: Mad Max: Fury Road
MakeUp: Mad Max: Fury Road
Foreign Language Film: Mustang
Animated Feature: Anomalisa
Animated Short: World of Tomorrow
Live Action Short: Day One
Documentary Short: Last Day of Freedom

Friday, January 8, 2016

2015 Yearly Wrap

Martin Ramirez set, Scott # 4968

Medal of Honor set, Scott # 4822b

Coastal Birds set, Scott # 4994.  California condor stamp (1971), Scott # 1430

Penguins issue, Scott # 4989

Summer Harvest set, Scott # 5007

Elvis Presley, music icon series, Scott # 5009

Ingrid Bergman, Scott # 5012

Paul Newman, Scott # 5020

A Charlie Brown Christmas set, Scott # 5025

Friday, June 12, 2015

Running Wild with Wilder

Billy Wilder's hilarious Some Like It Hot (1959) has the following exchange between Jerry (Jack Lemmon) and Joe (Tony Curtis), after Jerry spent the night, in drag disguise, dancing with millionaire Osgood (Joe E. Brown).

Jerry: Have I got things to tell you!
Joe: What happened?
Jerry: I'm engaged.
Joe: Congratulations. Who's the lucky girl?
Jerry: I am.

I've seen this film on the big screen more times than I can count, and the one thing unusual about this exchange is that the audience reaction is so strong after "I'm engaged" that I've never once heard the next, to my mind funnier, joke clearly. It gets lost in the gales of laughter.

But given the breakneck speed of the film, it's easy to see why.  Few comedies I know are so dense with jokes as this one.  There are the recurring jokes (the one-legged jockey, Blood Type O), the meta-movie ones (the gangster film references, the Cary Grant impersonation, 30s matinee idols George Raft and Pat O'Brien in the cast), and the countless sexual innuendos.  All funny, all impeccably delivered.  But so many of the jokes also contribute to the actual plot, like a perfectly-oiled machine of cause and effect that make the story details of two musicians on the lam from the mob both highly unlikely and hilariously inevitable.

I've always loved Hot because it has edge and bite, but isn't an acid bath of cynicism like so much of Wilder's (admittedly terrific) work.  And it's a marvelous study of contrasts: male vs. female, Chicago winter and Miami warmth, a playful musical comedy with the highest body count of any Wilder film.  Finding the right tone for all these contradictions can be a high-wire act, but Billy balances them effortlessly.  And ultimately, it's a film about acceptance, embracing how fluid and foolish the human experience can be but still showing a generosity toward all its manic characters.

The Hotel del Coronado is featured heavily in the film, particularly when Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) in her bathing suit first meets Joe in his faux millionaire get-up on the beach behind the hotel.  Growing up in San Diego, the Hotel del was a constant fixture in the visual language of the city, as close to an icon as that suburban kingdom had. Coronado is actually an island off the coast, and the Coronado Bridge has this magnificent sweep, arcing its way along the city skyline. As a family, we didn't go there often (we were ensconced in the North County, near Escondido, the avocado capital) but any trip there represented a special occasion. The beach was beautiful, and never a hot mess of tourism like so many of the San Diego beaches were.

I grew up in the era of the TV show Simon & Simon, so I was used to seeing San Diego landmarks on screen, but Some Like It Hot, a film that never travels farther west than Chicago, was the first time I'd seen it in a movie, and even then, there was this geographic displacement. For there were Sweet Sue's Syncopators cavorting in the Florida surf, with the Hotel del behind them.  But it still created a connection for me, first rooting the glamour of Hollywood in something real and recognizable.

Some Like It Hot was also one of my ex-wife's favorite movies, and one that she'd never seen before meeting me. I remember going with her to see it in the theater and having that line so buried in laughter, she didn't even remember hearing it. So we returned home and I played the VHS for her so she could. I usually had a good sense of the kind of movie she'd like, and many of her subsequent favorites were ones I'd seen on my own the first time (as I often did while she worked late) and knew she would love: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.  O Brother, Where Are Thou?

When we went back to visit San Diego, I took her to the Hotel del. It's a beautiful complex, and its modern amenities didn't detract from its classic Victorian grandeur (it was built in 1888). All the fixtures and details were gorgeous, and we even had Easter brunch there--as impressive and as indulgent a spread as I've ever seen. They have photos and ephemera from the film on display in the lobby, and the sand between your toes probably felt just like it did when Jack and Tony and Marilyn walked there 40+ years earlier.

That was long ago, and feels even longer. And so I wonder what those films I introduced her to and she loved so much mean to her now. As the film reminds us, nobody's perfect. But at least she tried to make things work. And in the end, she was the one who got the fuzzy end of the lollipop.  So I know there's plenty that she'll choose not to look back on, and I can't blame her.  Like that drowned out joke, the swell of emotion and memory can easily overwhelm many of the smaller details, no matter how good or rich or authentic they may have once been. 

For some people, movies, songs, and places are inextricably tied to a person or an experience. Therein lies their special beauty and their power. Some films can be timeless, but not everyone separates that larger appreciation with the more personal resonance they have. For some, those emotional associations are too strong, and the value they once had are no longer worth the poignancy they now bring.  And so it was with her, sometimes.  But I can't say.  We may not have been right for each other, but I hate the idea that Some Like It Hot might be as much out of her life as I am. I hope not.

The Marilyn Monroe stamp (Scott #2967) was the first in the Legends of Hollywood USPS series.  The Frank Capra stamp (Scott #4670) features in its illustration the Hotel del (which was also used to terrific effect 2 decades later in Richard Rush's excellent The Stunt Man).

My Favorite Films of 1959

1. Some Like It Hot
2. Rio Bravo (Hawks)
3. Hiroshima, Mon Amour (Resnais)
4. The World of Apu (Ray)
5. North by Northwest (Hitchcock)
6. Pickpocket (Bresson) 
7. Fires on the Plain (Ichikawa)
8. Floating Weeds (Ozu)
9. The 400 Blows (Truffaut)
10. Odds Against Tomorrow (Wise)