Tuesday, April 25, 2017

2017 SFFILM & Cinequest Wrap

A big year for the newly branded SFFILM (formerly the San Francisco International Film Festival), which just celebrated its 60th anniversary.  Here are some thoughts and impressions of the terrific cross-section of their programs (20 features, 49 shorts) I was lucky to catch this year.

There were more archival films and live music performances than usual, including an unlikely merging of the two with a screening of George Lucas’s first film THX-1138 (the revised 2004 “Special Edition” re-release version, not the original 1971 version) accompanied by a hard-driving rock score from Asian Dub Foundation.  This meant that Walter Murch’s sophisticated sound design was inaudible (the entire film played with subtitles), but it helped play up the dystopic visuals, which still pack a wallop 40+ years later.  It’s still my former boss’s most mature movie and a fun one to revisit in the glories of the Castro Theater.  The Castro was also where a rare screening of Jerome Hiler’s experimental shorts (both old and new) occurred, also to live music from Will Oldham.

The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968) was Melvin Van Peebles’s first film and that also enjoyed a rare archival screening.  Shot in France, it’s clearly a child of the Nouvelle Vague with its free-wheeling pacing and visual imagination, but also with what would be MVP’s familiar exploration of racial identity, brimming with wit and clear-eyed cynicism.  His next film would be his legendary Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and it was great fun seeing where that ballsy attitude originated.  Another standout retrospective screening was the Russian film A Long Happy Life (Shpalikov, 1967), also infused with a warm French sensibility, but in the classic tradition of Vigo or Pagnol and a lovely and poignant film I saw for the first time.

Since this was my first year visiting the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose the month before (5 features, 58 shorts), I’ll also discuss some of my discoveries there, particularly since the new British drama Wilderness was a fitting companion to the Van Peebles film.  Both are about whirlwind interracial romances that take place in Europe around the same time (the late 60s).  And while it can’t completely avoid some narrative contrivances, the acting by the two leads (Katharine Davenport, James Barnes) is excellent and the eroticism is potent and very natural.  It’s sometimes hard to tell which festival features are destined for wider distribution but this one certainly deserves it.

Another one that does is the terrific Iranian thriller A Dragon Arrives!, part true-life mystery, part stylish 60s noir with some supernatural tensions, and part meta-examination of the melding of history and storytelling.  For those of us who love what the last couple of decades have brought us from that country via Kiarostami, Farhadi, and Makhmalbaf, this is a very, very different animal, but an exciting demonstration of western tropes taking root with Iranian themes and issues.

Festivals have often proven themselves a showcase for talented female filmmakers in ways that the studio and distribution worlds continue to fall short, and some of my favorite narrative films were directed by women (also not surprisingly, all international).  The best to these eyes was the Cinequest title Past Imperfect, grounded by a phenomenal performance by Evelyne Brochu about a woman who has her life turned upside down by having her son (formerly raised by family) thrust back into her life.  It’s a familiar premise, but handled with soulfulness and compassion, with an immense amount of gorgeous nighttime photography.

More wonderful female-helmed films included The Wedding Ring from Niger and The Wedding Plan (Burshtein) from Israel.  The latter is a very funny wry comedy in the spirit of Rohmer (one of my favorite directors) about a woman committed to a scheduled wedding for herself even though the groom is a complete mystery.  And the former is a beautiful, vivid tale of a woman living in Europe returning to her African homeland and navigating the tricky landscape of traditions around matrimony.  Both are warm, generous, and clear-eyed about making a stand in the face of cultural expectations—unapologetically feminist, with complex characters and conflicts.

There were also two quite lovely Latin American films that stood out.  The Winter is about a laborer in the Patagonian highlands who must take over managing a ranch from a seasoned veteran. Family Life is about a Chilean drifter who tries on a new identity during a housesitting gig.  While one has epic sweep with an eye for the isolation in landscape and the other is an urban drama with an immersive sexual immediacy, both are intimate meditations on the challenges of finding your place in the world.  And while it may have a few too many echoes with Brokeback Mountain, the English farm drama God’s Own Country, about a burgeoning rural, cross-cultural gay relationship, manages to meld sensibilities from both these films quite effectively, too.

When it comes to documentaries, the high-profile standouts I saw were the two on filmmaking, 78/52 (Philippe), about the shower sequence in Psycho, and Score: A Film Music Documentary (Schrader).  And while both are ambitious, on a micro- and macro-level respectively, they’re also both incredibly frustrating works.   78/52 does an interesting job of deconstructing the sequence (cue Walter Murch again for analysis) and provides some helpful connective tissue between this legendary scene and both Hitchcock’s work and film history in general.  But it revels too much in Hitchcock’s reputation as an auteur and provocateur; it’s all adulation when deconstructing the mythology of the man 50+ years later would’ve been more incisive (I discussed Psycho previously on my blog here).

Even more troubling is the film music doc, which tries to be both an historical overview and a broad examination of the creative process.  The latter is certainly much more effective than the former (where significant talents get short shrift), but as interesting as it is to see composers collaborate with film directors or conduct orchestras recording sessions, the film is blind to the conspicuous lack of women and people of color in this role.  This is particularly noticeable because so many contemporary composers are interviewed or filmed working on projects, virtually all of them white dudes.  It makes the craft feel like a big boy’s club, and while there might be an element of truth to this in an industry which still has a serious gender and racial imbalance in certain disciplines, it goes completely without comment throughout the film.  Amidst the air of simplified celebration, it’s the elephant in the room, and a token Rachel Portman or Quincy Jones can’t change that.

Some more effective documentaries included the remarkable The Force, about the Police Department in Oakland (my home) and the history of controversies it’s instigated through violence and scandal.  It’s a very clever film, giving the impression that access means the OPD embraces a new sense of transparency, only to discover that ugly cultural traditions behind the blue wall still run deep.  Talking the talk and walking the walk are very different things, and it’s a great lesson on why mistrust in a community can be pervasive when abuse of power goes ignore or unchecked.  Even better is In Loco Parentis, a thoroughly charming doc about a British boarding school and the loving, committed teachers on the staff.  Both films take a Frederick Wiseman-like view of their subjects (no interviews, voiceover, or score), which works incredibly well in both cases.

Also worth noting were two docs from Cinequest about a very different group of doctors.  Memento Mori (Thompson) is about the incredible logistical challenges and devastating emotion one encounters in the field of organ donation.  With The Twinning Reaction (Shinseki), sets of identical twins separated in infancy through a shady adoption agency under the guise of “scientific research” are interviewed--some reunited with their sibling and some not, but all dealing with the heart-breaking repercussions of a needlessly cruel policy that persisted for decades.  Not without their flaws, both are still well worth checking out.

10 Favorite new feature films

1. Past Imperfect (Teirlinck; Belgium)+
2. The Winter (Torres; Argentina)*
3. In Loco Parentis (Chianain/Rane; Ireland)*
4. A Dragon Arrives! (Haghighi; Iran)*
5. The Wedding Ring (Keita; Niger)*
6. The Force (Nicks; US)*
7. Wilderness (Doherty; UK)+
8.  God’s Own Country (Lee; UK)*
9. Family Life (Jimenez/Scherson; Chile)*
10. That Trip We Took with Dad (Lazarescu; Romania)+

10 Favorite new short films

1. Bagatelle II (Hiler)*
2. Pearl (Osborne; Virtual Reality version)+
3. Modern Houses (Dixon)+
4. A Brief History of Princess X (Abrantes)*
5. The Rabbit Hunt (Bresnan)*
6. Russian Roulette (Aston)+
7. The John Show (Sokolow)+
8. Real Artists (Wood)+*
9. Summer Camp Island (Pott)*
10. No Other Way to Say It (Mason)+

* = SFFILM; + = Cinequest

The Alfred Hitchcock stamp is Scott #3226, Bernard Hermann (who is featured in both films docs I mentioned) is #3341 and Editing, part of the American Filmmaking issue, is #3772h.  The Star Wars stormtroopers are #4143o and the stamp for the Sport of the Gods one-sheet (part of the Black Cinema release) is #4337.  The Jack O’Lanterns from last year’s Halloween issue are #5138 & 5139 .  The Iranian Film Festival is a cache I picked up at Westpex, which has its annual convention in San Francisco this coming weekend.  Hope to see you there!

Monday, February 20, 2017

My Oscar Ballot

Picture: Moonlight
Actor: Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Actress: Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Supporting Actor: Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
Supporting Actress: Viola Davis, Fences
Director: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Original Screenplay: The Lobster
Adapted Screenplay: Moonlight
Cinematography: Moonlight
Production Design: Hail Caesar!
Editing: Arrival
Costume Design: Jackie
Score: Jackie
Song: "How Far I'll Go",  Moana
Sound Mixing: Rogue One
Sound Editing: Arrival
Visual Effects: Kubo and the Two Strings
Make-Up: Suicide Squad
Animated Feature: The Red Turtle
Animated Short: Blind Vaysha
Live Action Short: Timecode
Documentary Short: 4.1 Miles
Foreign Language Film: Toni Erdmann

Monday, February 6, 2017

For E, Four-Oh

Awash with mutual affection, we walked up Filmore St. and had dinner at Florio, where we talked and ate pasta off each other's plates.  Then on the way back, she sang Thelonious Monk and Kurt Weill to me in that beautiful voice of hers.  And when I said good night to her, looking in her eyes there on the corner of Eddy & Steiner, I knew I had never loved anyone so much as I did her.

And still do.  If I could relive one hour of my life again over and over, forever, it would be that hour with her. 

She turns 40 today, and this card is for Her.

Starting at the top, Georgia O'Keefe (Scott #4748e) is one of four stamps on this card that were part of the Modern Art in America issue--the others being Arthur Dove (#4748l), Marsden Hartley (#4748d), and Marcel Duchamp (#4748k).  The first-day-of-issue postmark is for those stamps.

Moving on from there, the other stamps I featured are: Neysa McCain (#3502m), William M. Harnett (#1386), Folk Art tea caddy (#1776), Frida Kahlo (#3509), Love letter (#3551), Isamu Noguchi (#3859), Grandma Moses (#1370), Winslow Homer (#1207), John Sloan (#1433), Hawaii (#C84), Mary Cassatt (#1322), Fine Arts (#1259), guitar (#1613), Yosemite National Park (#740), Seattle (#1196), orchid (#2079), art glass (#3328), Edward Hopper (#3184n), and Louise Nevelson (#3383).

Monday, January 30, 2017

2016 Yearly Wrap

Parakeets, Scott #5124 - part of Pets issue

Shirley Temple, #5060

Sarah Vaughan, #5059 (w/Josh White #3215)

Mercury #5069 - part of The Planets issue

Everglades #5080l) - part of the National Park Service issue

Halloween Jack-o'-lantern #5140

Banana split #5095 - part of the Soda Fountain Favorites issue

Tulips #5049 - part of Botanical Art issue

Quilled Paper Heart, #5036

New Horizons probe #5078, part of the Pluto mini-sheet

Enterprise and planet #5134 - part of Star Trek issue

1953 Chevrolet #5102 - part of Pickup Truck issue (w/Hot Rod stamp #4909)

Wonder Woman (Bronze Age), #5150

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

I Only Have Four Eyes

My friend Brian does the “I Only Have Two Eyes” series annually on his blog (the title of which I’ve revised for my bespectacled self), about the best of archival screenings in the Bay Area.  And since 2016 was the first year in ages that I actually logged every film I saw in a theater (final tally: 229 features & 256 shorts), it made compiling a list of my own 10 indelible experiences much easier to do.

We’ll start with Dumbo (Sharpsteen, 1941) at the Paramount in Oakland, on absolutely stunning 35mm.  Although the emcee called it original (which it couldn’t have been, because that would have meant nitrate stock), it certainly was a crisply struck print that had not seen much circulation.  Combine the divine “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence with the most gorgeous Art Deco palace in the Bay Area, and it was a great way to start the year.

Also in January were some memorable titles at Noir City at the Castro, and for me, the highlight was a first viewing of Mickey One (Penn, 1965), a glorious jazz-tinged fever dream of a film, with an assist from legend Stan Getz.  Disjointed, bizarre, singularly unique and punctuated by a live dance routine from burlesque goddess Evie Lovelle.

Soon after, the PFA had an excellent Maurice Pialat series, but I suspect that the power of his Under the Sun of Satan (1987) was magnified by it being bookended (quite by coincidence) with two other contemporary films I saw the same week that also explore religious faith, fanaticism and hypocrisy: Pablo Larrain’s The Club and Avishai Sivan’s Tikkun.  In Pialat’s fantasy-fueled acid bath Passion Play, he posits the possibility that religion may be the most oppressive to the truly devout.  Overall, a provocative accidental trilogy.

Some fun Gothic films ran their course at the Yerba Buena Arts Center that summer, and the highlight was my first time seeing The Beguiled (1971) on the big screen.  Still Don Siegel’s best, Clint Eastwood plays a Yankee fox trying to subvert and seduce a Dixie henhouse.  The thick hothouse atmosphere and sexual tension played beautifully through Siegel's lighting and the insidious plotting and character power plays.  Still a remarkable film (soon to be remade by Sofia Coppola).

Though a relatively recent movie, I have to include the Triplets of Belleville (Chomet, 2003) screening at the Taube Atrium in the SF Opera House because Benoît Charest was there with a jazz combo to perform his exquisite score live, including saws, bikes, and trashcans as percussion instruments.  A terrific experience.

2016 was the first year the Alamo Drafthouse in the Mission was open, and the best part of their programming is the late night Mon-Wed screenings.  My first dip into that pool was a packed show of Two-Lane Blacktop (Hellman, 1971), which I’ve seen several times in the theater, but never tire of the gearhead culture, the meditative structure and lack of urgency (for a racing film!) and Warren Oates’s phenomenal turn as GTO.  My year was relatively short on roadtrips but this went some way to sating my wanderlust.

In my backyard at the Parkway, there was an irresistible double bill of the cuckoo-bananas conspiracy theory documentary Room 237 (Ascher, 2012) followed by a screening of the focus of its subject, The Shining (Kubrick, 1980) itself.  Rarely does a year go by when I don’t see some Kubrick on screen (I also revisited Paths of Glory and Spartacus at the Smith Rafael Film Center for Kirk Douglas’s 100th birthday), but a bonus this year was an excellent exhibit on Kubrick at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in SF with some amazing artifacts from his career, including the typewriter and hedge maze model from this film.

Also at the Smith Rafael was a Sam Fuller weekend (with his widow and daughter in attendance), where the biggest revelation for me was his Tokyo noir House of Bamboo (1955), a beautifully stylized genre piece whose gangster trappings and compositions appeared to anticipate the marvelous Seijun Suzuki, whose career was starting around the exact same time.  As you’d expect, Robert Ryan is in top form and the climax on a rooftop amusement park is a standout.

And finally, two silent films, both firsts for me.  At the Silent Film Festival at the Castro, Destiny (1921), the earliest film I’ve seen by Fritz Lang and a glorious anthology of stories where Love must face down Death.  It was wonderful seeing Lang’s visual imagination in bloom, anticipating the superb special FX and supernatural wonders of his next few years in Germany.  Months later, over at the Niles Essanay Film Museum, the buoyant energy of underrated actress Bebe Daniels was on full display in the fizzy comedy Feel My Pulse (La Cava, 1928), about a hypochondriac heiress looking for rest at a health sanitarium which is actually acting as a front for bootleggers (led by a very young William Powell).  A hilarious comedy and secret gem.

So that’s 10 features, but since I saw over 60 archival shorts in the theater last year, I’ll give an honorable mention to two with Buster Keaton, still silent in the autumn of his career.  I saw The Railrodder (Potterton, 1965) at an Oddball Film Archive screening, featuring Buster traveling across Canada on an open-air mini-railcar, a playful reminder of his other great train film The General, but in sumptuous color.  And around the same time, the Smith Rafael Film Center played Film (Schneider, 1965), one of Samuel Beckett’s few forays into film and a wonderful existential metaphor with Buster showing that age had not changed the expressiveness of his body in motion.  A sublime pairing.  Here’s looking forward to another year of familiar films and new discoveries.

The Walt Disney stamp is Scott #1355 and Buster Keaton #2828. Dumbo is #4194 and Steamboat Willie #4343.  The Ringling Brothers stamps are #4901 & 4904 while the other circus stamps are, sequentially, #1309, 2750 & 2751.  The Pontiac GTO is #4744 and the Ford pickup #5104.

Friday, January 20, 2017


D is for Demagogue.  Despot.  Deceptive.  Delusional.  Diddler.  Dumbass.  And, of course, Donald. 
My Dad was a hardcore Republican (a picture of Barry Goldwater hung in his den in our home), and Ronald Reagan—our other celebrity-turned-president—was in office during my middle and high school years.  So I’m very familiar with the mindset and priorities of the voices across the aisle.  But this year’s election narrative couldn’t have been more surreal or sadly absurd if the Onion had been writing it.  I wonder what The Gipper would have thought about our new President being a Russian patsy, or if he, or my dad, would even recognize their GOP anymore.  Would they have seen through this charlatan, or ultimately toe the party line?
This past week, the San Diego Chargers, the football team I cheered for my entire life, announced that it’s packing its bags and moving to Los Angeles.  To many (including me), this sense of betrayal will mean the severing of all support or connection with that team.  But not everyone will.  Loyalty and identification are powerful things, feeling that you’re part of something bigger.   
What, I wonder then, would it take to sever one’s connection with your political party?  To put your country before your partisanship?  This year, we learned that for many millions of Republicans, electing a racist bully, an unapologetic lecher, an insecure authoritarian, and a profoundly selfish and un-Christian pathological liar and narcissist wasn’t enough to cut that cord.  Power trumped empathy and basic human decency.
I’m lucky.  I have a job I love in one of the most liberal districts in the country in a self-proclaimed sanctuary state.  But I worry for my country—not just for its institutions and the millions of lives who will be hurt and maligned by this new administration, but also for its larger sense of fairness, dignity and purpose.  I love my country, deeply, but the term “American Exceptionalism” is a bitter contradiction-in-terms when I see how susceptible it is to fear and bigotry and self-interest.
There’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that our new president is a good person.  He’s not a man of principle or character, just a cheat and vindictive opportunist.  And as president, he, like all presidents, will get a postage stamp when he dies.  What I’ve always liked about postage stamps is that they are meant to celebrate our culture, traditions, heroes, history.
But I can find no reason to celebrate today.
So now it’s a time for resolve and resistance.  Resist having our values further eroded.  Resist normalizing what was once horrid and unacceptable.  Resist complacency in the shadow of ignorance and spite.  Our country never stopped being great.  But can we as Americans, from the right and the left, make it exceptional again, rooted in compassion, wisdom, and generosity?  Yes we can.  

The kitten stamp from last year's Pets set is Scott #5111 and the spay/neuter stamp is #3670.  The Reagan stamp is #3897 and the US flag for veterans is #3331.  The White House and Capitol stamps are from 1950 (D.C.'s sesquicentennial) and are Scott #990 & 992 respectively.  The Child Labor Law stamp was part of the Celebrate the Century series, #3183o and the Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens stamp is #5080j.  The two stamps from the Building a Nation set are Scott #4801d & e . 

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Luminous Beings

In what now seems a lifetime ago, I once had to go through tens of thousands of feet of 16mm behind-the-scenes footage from the original Star Wars trilogy.  Most of this was not shot on the set, but rather with the effects crew, model and creature shops, and other artists commonly known as “below the line” but critical to any movie’s success, especially those.  So you rarely saw much of the cast, but one memorable sequence was Carrie Fisher in her (in)famous slave bikini outfit from Return of the Jedi (1983, Marquand) sunbathing in the Arizona desert during a break, side by side with her similarly costumed stunt double.  And it was a jarring moment because you actually saw her interacting with another woman.

For let’s face it—the original three films are a sausage fest and Bechdel test nightmare.  There are only 3 female speaking parts in the whole trilogy—the short-lived Aunt Beru, the blink-and-you-miss her Mon Mothma (recently revived in the terrific Rogue One), and Princess Leia Organa.  So Carrie had to do the heavy-lifting for all 3 films when it came to female characterization, since she was both love interest and leader of the Rebellion.  Powerful, commanding, willing to stand toe-to-toe with anyone she came up against (Vader, Tarkin, Jabba) but also kind, caring, and authentic.  One of the highlights of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was seeing her back in action, still filled with authority and compassion.  The fact that the last two franchise films have had women at the center of the heroics is due in large part to her influence. 

Of course, since then she has also proven herself a witty writer and raconteur, smart aleck and cinematic sidekick, member of a vibrant-but-troubled Hollywood dynasty, an object lesson about addiction and an ambassador for destigmatizing mental health issues.  And she leaves us just a few months after her co-star Kenny Baker (who played R2-D2) and, tragically, one day before her mother Debbie Reynolds.

Just a month ago, I saw a sneak preview of Bright Lights (2016, Bloom/Stevens), a documentary about Carrie & Debbie.  It's a marvelous film in how it shows the once tumultuous mother-daughter relationship that evolved into one of deep love and support, but leavened with an enormous amount of playful ribbing, snark, and self-deprecation.  They had come to terms with the demons of the past and were both continuing to dive into creative pursuits fueled by wisdom and nostalgia.  So much of their personal bad luck and bad choices were scandal sheet fodder for so long, that there was little choice but to face the future with bravado and pluck.  The film follows each of them individually (Debbie rehearsing a one-woman show, Carrie attending a scifi convention), but the best parts are when they are together.  They come off as best of friends and savvy partners in crime, and it really did seem hard to imagine how one could exist without the other.  Both full of such indomitable spirit in the film, and both gone much too soon (Carrie at 60, Debbie at 84).
Another wonderful thing the film highlights is Debbie’s tireless campaign to save the artifacts of Hollywood history, particularly the costumes—not just of her films, but of films that predate her and that would have otherwise been thrown out by studio departments who were, back then, far less interested in preserving their past than making space for the latest productions.  Pieces that she purportedly saved over the years (through fundraising and her own backlot connections and initiative) include Charlie Chaplin’s bowler, Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra headdress, Marilyn Monroe’s subway grate dress from The Seven Year Itch, and Judy Garland’s Oz ruby slippers.

One of my favorite songs is “Graceland” by Paul Simon, who was once married to Carrie, and whose relationship with her is documented in that song (among many others).  It’s a song about renewal and second chances, and when I drove across country last year, I listened to the whole Graceland album as I approached Memphis to visit Elvis’s legendary estate of the same name.  In the song, Simon writes about his ex:
She comes back to tell me she's gone
As if I didn't know that
As if I didn't know my own bed
As if I'd never noticed
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead
And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you're blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow
Life is a pilgrimage and we should all be so lucky as to have it filled with grace (in both the poetic and spiritual dimension).  Yoda says to Luke, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”  2016 was a rough year for a lot of people for a lot of reasons.  May the road we take in 2017, portentous clouds notwithstanding, be filled with the light, courage, good humor and fierce resolve that they both embodied so well.

Carrie and Kenny share a USPS stamp, essentially, from the Star Wars issue back in 2007.  That is Scott #4143f .  The X-wing fighter is #4143m.  The Wizard of Oz stamp is #2445, Judy Garland #4077, and Yip Harbug #3905.  The music stamp from the American Filmmaking series is #3772d.  And Elvis is #5009.  Incidentally, the first film poster on a postcard I ever owned was a gift from my high school girlfriend.  It was for Singin’ in the Rain, still one of my favorite films ever.  I’ve included it here, along with the inscription she wrote on the back, since this whole blog & collection originated, in a sense, with her.

My 10 favorite films featuring Debbie*, Carrie+, or Kenny#.
1. Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Donen/Kelly) *
2. The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Kershner) +#
3. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986, Allen) +
4. Time Bandits (1981, Gilliam) #
5. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989, Miyazaki) *
6. The Elephant Man (1980, Lynch) #
7. When Harry Met Sally… (1989, Reiner) +
8. Mona Lisa (1986, Jordan) #
9. Star Wars (1977, Lucas) +#
10. The Blues Brothers  (1980, Landis) +