Friday, June 9, 2017

All the World Is Waiting for You

Despite the remarkable ascendancy, critically and commercially, of the Marvel Comics cinematic Universe in the last decade, there is no denying that it has largely been one big sausage party.  Growing up as a Marvel comics fan, this was also true of the publisher itself.  Women heroes, when represented, were usually part of a team (Sue Richards, Scarlet Witch, Jean Grey) and there weren’t any female icons with the heft to carry their own title in any significant way.  When the USPS released a set of Marvel stamps ten years ago, the interests of gender parity meant including marginal characters like Elektra and Spider-Woman over far more famous heroes like Thor and Daredevil.  This was because Marvel simply didn’t have any females as big as their counterparts at DC, Wonder Woman or Supergirl.
And so the films have followed-suit, with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow (incredible ass-kicker but essentially power-free) doing most of the heavy lifting across five appearances to date.  Even when staffed with Oscar-winners like Halle Berry, Jennifer Lawrence and Anna Paquin, the Marvel films have rarely known what to do with them.  In fact, the only female-driven Marvel film so far has been Elektra, Jennifer Garner’s incarnation who got her own movie after first being introduced as a secondary character in a film where Ben Affleck played an urban vigilante.  Sound familiar?
So Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman is far overdue, especially when you consider that her DC colleagues Superman and Batman have had a combined total of 16 appearances in films since Christopher Reeve first began the modern era of superhero movies almost 40 years ago.  That’s one every 2.5 years.  And that’s not even counting The LEGO Batman Movie (2017’s fifth highest money-maker currently).
They say to never let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and Wonder Woman is good.  The business on Exposition Island is clunky (most origin stories are) but rich with Amazon badassery.  There’s not enough of Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) or Antiope (Robin Wright), though there is something delicious about having Princess Buttercup unleash her inner warrior.  The third act reveal of Ares is smart and well-thought out, but what it means is that through most of the film, there really isn’t a truly menacing villain as counterpoint to Gal Gadot’s imposing presence.  Danny Huston was a bigger threat in the Wolverine offshoot movie as a mere mortal, and is definitely no Red Skull.
For of course, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) is the obvious analogue to Wonder Woman, a pair of noble neophytes waging war in the German (or Belgian) woods via historical flashback.  But the film that Wonder Woman more closely resembles, and a comparison I haven’t seen anywhere yet, is Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.  For like Diana, Milla Jovovich’s Leeloo is fierce but gentle, naïve but strong-willed, and doesn’t need anyone’s help to take out a room full of assailants.
But more importantly, their arcs are similar because they are their own McGuffin.  Diana thinks she’s carrying the God-Killer (her sword), but she actually *is* the God Killer, just like Leeloo is herself the Fifth Element.  Both have, late in the game, serious bouts of disillusionment with mankind and its propensity for war and violence.  But both overcome this despondency and very explicitly choose to manifest Love—not merely Eros (the stock & trade of comic book fantasy), but Agape, a higher spiritual extension of compassion, generosity and self-sacrifice.
In this sense, I think it resembles Man of Steel (Snyder, 2013), a film I’ll still argue is--while also flawed--underrated and misunderstood.  Both heroes are not mere saviors, but also a means to inspire those around them.  But while that film is cloaked in a brooding melancholy, Wonder Woman has clear-eyed optimism, even in the face of man-made horrors.  After Chris Nolan’s excellent but dark Batman trilogy set the tone for DC’s moody temperament, WW is exactly the shot-in-the-arm this comic series needs.  Which is why I worry about the upcoming Justice League movie, which will depict Diana a hundred years later.  Will she be more jaded and cynical?  She was the best thing about the bad Batman v Superman because she brought warmth and sass and energy.  But as the new movie demonstrates, her real heroic power is Love.  How much of that will survive when she joins this Super Boys Club with a different director at the helm?
The same weekend I saw Wonder Woman, I attended the SF Silent Film Festival.  And it was a welcome reminder of how the movies weren’t afraid of strong women back then, even if the times were far more conservative.  In Filibus (Roncoroni, 1915), the title role is a female mastermind—exceptional thief, daring impostor, and the head of a motley crew of outlaws with gadgets that would make James Bond green with envy.  In Outside the Law (Browning, 1920), Lon Chaney may have two roles (one heroic, one villainous) but it’s Priscilla Dean who calls the shots when she inherits a criminal empire from her father.  She balances being a reformist and a resourceful crook with equal aplomb.
But the real eye-opener for me was The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916), a remarkable collaboration between famous Russian dancer Anna Pavlova and pioneering director Lois Weber.  The first American woman to direct a feature-length film, Weber had dozen of titles under her belt by this time, but she was still known for contemporary dramas and social issue pictures.  This was a film on a completely different level—an epic period piece with a higher budget and bigger scale than she’d ever worked with before.  It reminded me of the talk of giving Patty Jenkins such an expensive tentpole picture after just one feature (the Oscar-winning Monster) and some TV work.
The final result?  Portici is a glorious achievement, with incredible tableaus, jaw-dropping camera movement, and a wonderful sense of drama amidst the herculean (or perhaps, Amazonian?) task of managing so many moving parts within a single frame.  The film isn’t perfect (it still suffers from some stiff dramaturgy typical of the time), but the achievement is impressive: a gorgeous restoration of a film that deserves to be better-known.
Which got me thinking: Why isn’t there a US postage stamp of Weber?  Or of any woman filmmaker for that matter?  Body and Soul (1925) was also featured at the festival, and both Oscar Micheaux and Paul Robeson, the film’s director and star respectively, have well-deserved US postage stamps.  In fact, there’s a wonderful series of stamps commemorating Black Cinema and a handful of film directors have been honored on stamps starting with D.W. Griffith.
But the only women who have been honored from the American film industry have been actresses—amazing, powerful, influential actresses, but still ones who never really worked outside the confines of that craft.  No directors or producers, no screenwriters or below-the-line artists.  Douglas Fairbanks has a US stamp, but not his wife Mary Pickford, one of the biggest stars of the silent era and a co-founder of United Artists.
No Lois Weber or Mabel Normand or June Mathis.  No Maya Deren or Dorothy Arzner or Ida Lupino (as important a director as an actress).  Not yet, at least. 

But I’ll keep hoping that one day, I can add a Frances Marion stamp to my Anna Christie card (part of her prolific writing career) or an Edith Head stamp to my Roman Holiday card (one of over 400 films to her credit as costume designer).  Or any number of women who were essential in making the movies magic.  History was often not kind to their placement in the industry or the opportunities afforded them.  Which makes their achievements that much more worth celebrating.  Wonder Women all.
These are the Scott #s for the stamps pictured:  
The Wonder Woman stamp from the DC Comics issue (lower right on Lynda Carter card) is #4084c.  The three stamps from the Wonder Woman issue a decade later are #5149, 5150, & 5151.  The other stamps pictured from the DC Comics issue are Superman (#4084k), Green Lantern (#4084b), the Flash (#4084p), Green Arrow (#4084d) and Hawkman (#4084j).  The Batman stamp was from the issue for that character (#4934).  On the Justice League card, you can see all 3 different types of postmarks.
The two stamps pictured from the Marvel Comics issue are Captain America (#4159o) and Elektra (#4159i).  The movie stars pictured are Paul Robeson (#3834), Greta Garbo (#3943), Audrey Hepburn (#3786) and Gregory Peck (#4526).  Oscar Micheaux is #4464.  Mary Pickford's Canadian stamp was issued in 2006.
The stamp for Charles Demuth's painting "I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold" is #4748a.  The textile worker (#4801k) is from the Building America series.  The Field Day stamp (#5182) is part of the brand new WPA posters series.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

A Force to be Beckoned With

Growing up in San Diego, it was summer’s annual pilgrimage—waking up before dawn and piling in the car so we could arrive in Anaheim by the time the gates opened.  This was back in the time when you literally could do everything in one day, the era of “Mission to Mars”, the People Mover, Bear Country, and the E-ticket ride.  It was the "Happiest Place on Earth" and always represented not just one childhood siren song, but the whole Disney catalog we'd collected on LPs.  By the time I went to Disneyland for Grad Night (a tradition for SoCal high schools), all three Star Wars films had been released and the new ride at the Magic Kingdom was the motion simulator, Star Tours.  Little could I possibly know (or imagine) that 25 years later, I would be a fixture in the park myself, a minuscule part of these two pop culture legacies.

If you Google me, always one of the first things to pop up is my IMDB profile which includes one single acting credit: Rebel Pilot on Star Tours, The Adventures Continue (2011).  I’ve talked about my life on Skywalker Ranch before on this blog, and while many different highlights stand out (some of which I can talk about, some I can’t), that film credit is the one thing about me that the internet will likely remember the longest.  Today is the 40th anniversary of the release of the original Star Wars, so here are some thoughts on that day I spent on the green screen stages of “Kerner Optical” (ILM) in downtown San Rafael and the first time I saw the final product, many years later.

We were only given the sketchiest of outlines: we were in a hangar and we were welcoming back the patrons of the ride, who miraculously survived their thrilling adventure.  Because there were no corrective lenses “A Long Time Ago”, I had to hide my glasses inside my glove take after take, so I could only barely make out the camera as we all collectively whooped and hollered and applauded.  As is often reported, there’s a lot of down time on the set, so after multiple turns at that scene, we wore Hefty trash bag bibs while eating at the craft service tables (all our costumes were original artifacts from the first SW trilogy—see the Return of the Jedi still below).  Then there was lots of hangar B-roll footage: “I want you to walk from here across to there, but not in this area, because that’s where a big spaceship will be”, etc.  I also remember there was an actor from the prequels there (one of Padme’s guards) who had some lines to intro the ride, which we watched being filmed from the wings.  I asked if I could get a SAG card from my stint that day (I had no lines, so the answer was No) and then went back to my regular job the next day.

Years later, and just a few months after the ride opened, I left Lucasfilm.  And while the ride sounded cool (with its multiple randomizing elements, which made every experience a unique one), it hardly was convenient or practical to travel hundreds of miles to see myself for a whole 15 seconds.  But I’d hear from friends once in a while—none of whom had known I was on the new Star Tours but who could clearly pick me out among my rebel band.  I was intrigued but since the ride was in 3D, all the cel phone renditions that popped up on YouTube relegated me to a blur.  And that was part of my past anyway. Even when my mom asked to be taken to Disneyland one last time before leaving California for good, there were a lot of things I knew she wanted to do more (and with the randomizing element, there was no guarantee the herky-jerky ride which she wouldn’t enjoy would even pay off with an appearance from her son).

But then I heard there was going to be an expansion of Disneyland, which would include a huge new Star Wars section.  Would they move the ride?  It is just a flight simulator, easy to relocate.  Would it be closed for a while?  Would the now-expanding universe of new Star Wars films mean the need for constant revisions and updates?  I couldn’t be sure, but I knew I would feel like an idiot if I never saw myself on this thing.  The idea of going down seemed absurd since I had just been there recently (because a campus that big required me pushing her around in a wheelchair, Mom and I were able to go on everything she wanted).  But just around this time last year, I decided to drive down and go.

It only took two turns standing in line to see the module with me in it.  It’s a fun ride, cleverly done and entertaining.  No sign of any of the B-roll footage they shot; all the hangar footage on view as patrons wait in line is now much more CG-oriented.  No sign of Padme’s aide (C-3PO now took over hosting duties).  But sure enough, I was there in what one might call muted exuberance, welcoming myself home.  And the one module I'm in has my favorite music cue ("The Asteroid Field") from the entire series.  I found a single YouTube that shows all the original variations, so now I’m visible for the idly curious: my module (a hybrid of Eps 2 & 6) starts at timecode 19:51; I appear at 21:15.

And like I suspected, they had added a new module that included scenes from Episode 7: The Force Awakens.  Like George before it, the Mouse has the itch it can’t not scratch, this impulse to update, revise, and rebrand.  That’s particularly true of the park where I had so many childhood memories. I remember Nemo’s submarine ride when it was an homage to Jules Verne, Tarzan’s treehouse when it belonged to the Swiss Family Robinson, the Pirates ride before it was polluted by the movie’s score and uncanny valley Johnny Depp.  The reason I went in the spring was so I could ride the Haunted Mansion when it wasn’t taken over by The Nightmare Before Christmas (much as I love that film).  The one time I was on a ride that broke down and we all had to walk through it to exit outside, it was the now-long-gone miniaturization ride "Adventures thru Inner Space" which was in the same spot where Star Tours is now.

Another ride that’s no longer around is America Sings, this strange musical revue of early traditional American music, all performed by animatronic animal characters.  As it happens, most of those characters are now on Splash Mountain, in some ways an even stranger ride since it references a movie, The Song of the South (1946), that I’d wager few Disney visitors younger than I have ever seen.  There’s a perverse form of denial in the Mouse House about that controversial film since there’s no song you’ll hear more often in Disneyland than "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" (it is everywhere), but you won’t find the movie in their gift shops or the title referenced at all.  But it is a great ride and when I was on it, I had an epiphany: I’ll wager that Splash Mountain will be rebranded as a Zootopia variation at some point, since the rabbit and fox are already principal characters.  Plus, it's a safer, fresher property. Disney has little patience for the forgettable, so the regrettable seems even more likely to be casually swept away.

The one thing that made this Disneyland trip most unusual for me was that there was no urgency about lines or access or getting the most bang for my buck.  I had one mission, which I accomplished early, so the rest was active but oddly relaxing.  Some old favorites I revisited, but there was plenty of new stuff to discover: California Adventure is more serene, less congested.  The truly psychedelic Winnie-the-Pooh ride is audacious and bizarre, and the Monster’s Inc. and Little Mermaid rides are in the spirit of the old school Fantasyland storybook rides.  Cars-land is more entertaining than either of the actual movies.  I’m sure I would’ve enjoyed Toon Town as a kid (Who Framed Roger Rabbit? opened the same year as my grad night), but I did find this extraordinary little tidbit.  This is the mailbox outside Goofy's house.  Do you see the manila envelope?  Here's a close-up, upside down.
I love this inside joke.  The postmark date--July 17, 1955--was the date that the original park opened, back when Uncle Walt was alive.  And while we know a stork (voiced by one Sterling Holloway, a Disney regular) delivered the famous baby elephant in Dumbo, Roger Rabbit reminds us that in Toon Town, storks also deliver the mail.

Had any visitor even noticed that postmark before?  It’s the most incidental of grace notes.  But that’s what’s always been most amazing about the park: its meticulous attention-to-detail, embedding Easter eggs and hidden references everywhere—things you might never notice but whose cumulative impact is undeniable.  But I’ll admit it: it’s weird to be a childless single adult at the park.  It’s saturated In the cult of family and franchising and nostalgia and while it’s all impressive (almost to the point of overwhelming), I really have a hard time imagining myself ever going back.  I’ve seen everything there is to see, in some cases many times over.  Things will change, of course, but while I’ve been a lot of places across several continents, I hope to see much more out there before it’s all over.  The real world is my Tomorrowland.  And it’s even more true now than it was when I first heard the Sherman Brothers song: It is a Small World after all.  And an inviting one.

The day before I went to Disneyland, I hiked through Griffith Park and to the top of the Hollywood sign, something I’d always wanted to do.  I was in no rush, so it took a few hours of just me surrounded by nature, slowly working my way up to this gorgeous vista, a heavenly view of the City of Angels.  That hike was a bigger deal to me than what came the next day.  That was true magic. 

First, the Disney stamps.  You'll note the California Adventures card has all 5 different Mickeys (one per issue over 5 years).  Note that those postmarks are all Anaheim or Orlando (home of Disney World, which I've never visited).  To summarize:

Mickey, Donald, Goofy - Scott #3865
Bambi - #3866
Pinocchio - #3868
Mickey, Pluto - #3912
Alice in Wonderland - #3913
Snow White - #3915
Mickey, Minnie - #4025
Cinderella - #4026
Fantasia Mickey - #4192
Peter Pan - #4193
Dumbo - #4194
101 Dalmatians - #4342
Steamboat Willie - #4343
Sleeping Beauty - #4344

The two California statehood stamps are #997 and #3438.  The X-wing fighter is #4143m and the planet Neptune #5076.  Joel Chandler Harris wrote the Uncle Remus stories; his stamp (on the Splash Mountain card) is #980.  The Jack-o-Lantern is #5137.  

And at the time the Muppet stamps were released, they had a 3D show at California Adventure (though it's not there now).  The Scott #s are Jim Henson (#3944k), Kermit (#3944a), Fozzie (#3944b), Statler & Waldorf (#3944e), the Swedish Chef (#3944f), and Dr. Honeydew & Beaker (#3944h).

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.