Sunday, March 11, 2018

Direct Cinema and the Vietnam War

Basic Traning screen capture from DVD Talk review

The 1974 Peter Davis film Hearts and Minds, screens in 35mm today (along with Carolee Schneemann's 1966 16mm short Viet-Flakes) as the midway point in BAMPFA's excellent series Documenting Vietnam: Self-Portraits of America at War, timed with the 50th anniversary of the My Lai Massacre, which we saw a haunting, intimate portrait of from the perpetrators' POV last week in Joseph Strick's 1970 Interviews With My Lai Veterans. It's a film that contains exactly what its title promises: it consists entirely with one-on-one interviews (with very few interjections from the questioner) with five participants in the tragic event, each expressing different shades of regret. It was paired with a very good 16mm print of Frederick Wiseman's intensely immersive Basic Training, which eschews interviews by placing the camera as a kind of unacknowledged observer in the Fort Knox universe. Though Wiseman has rejected the term "Direct Cinema" and his name has been scrubbed from its contradictory wikipedia page, Basic Training hews to the precepts of the concept as described in books like Betsy A. McLane's A New History of Documentary Film and Erik Barnouw's Documentary: a History of the Non-Fiction Film. Placing the two films together is a reminder that the Vietnam War occured at the same time as great debates about non-fiction filmmaking techniques.

Hearts and Minds begins with an extremely memorable sequence. Vietnamese children are playing, and farmers are working in a seemingly idyllic rice paddy, free from any visible signs of war. Then, quite suddenly, a soldier walks into the frame. In addition to being a suitable metaphor for Western involvement in Southeast Asia, the image raises an important question: how was it captured? Did Davis or one of his cameramen plant a tripod in front of a known patrol path and wait? Or was the soldier directed to walk this particular route for the benefit of the shot? This question is related to an inherent limitation of the Direct Cinema approach: though filmmakers of that "school" say they avoid telling the subjects of their films to perform or repeat an action, sometimes it's not evident from the footage itself, except perhaps to the most sophisticated viewer, whether or not this guideline was actually hewed to. We must either a) trust that a Direct Cinema filmmaker is adhering to the guidelines of the method, or b) not care so much about how "pure" a piece of Direct Cinema filmmaking may be.

Many documentarians themselves take the latter approach to their filmmaking, opting for an "impure" hybrid approach that meshes Direct Cinema, cinéma vérité and other styles into kind of journalistic stew. Davis, as he reveals in his commentary track for the Criterion DVD edition of Hearts and Minds, was very much inspired by Direct Cinema when beginning his career making documentaries. The lack of a narrator in the film ties him to this group, though his reasoning for this artistic choice is not one I've encountered in readings on the movement (in Barnouw, McLane, and elsewhere): he felt a interlocutor worked as something of a blanket of safety around a war film, as a narrator would certainly sound as if at a comfortable remove from the distressing images on screen, perhaps inherently sanctioning them as a result.

Screen capture from Criterion DVD of Hearts and Minds
There are scenes in Heart and Minds that appear to utilize something like a Direct Cinema approach, for instance the scenes of the airmen wandering the streets of Saigon looking for cheap thrills. But this is not a "pure" Direct Cinema film. Subjects address the camera, whether in interviews, or in unscripted, unplanned reaction to its presence - the latter most notably in a moment where a Vietnamese man remarks "first they bomb as much as they please, then they film." The use of archival footage also seemingly dilutes "Direct Cinema" purity.

Essentially, Davis's film reveals that his allegiance to a specific approach to filmmaking is not as strong as it is to the message he wants to get across: that American involvement in the Vietnam War was ill-conceived, inevitably doomed, and caused greater harm to both nations than remaining uninvolved would have. There is little to no pretense of objectivity to be found in the film; though he gives opposing voices a say, he uses editing juxtapositions to make them seem as ridiculous or discreditable as possible within the context he's created. Cutting from General Westmoreland's platitudes about Asians' disregard for human life, to a wailing mother disrupting a burial in an attempt to join her son in his grave, is only the starkest of these.

One might say that, in using a hodge-podge of methods in the service of a particular point of view, Davis opens his film up for criticism and accusations of bias. But this only raises another question: is there any documentary which can claim to be completely free of "bias"? The Direct Cinema filmmakers may use a seemingly more "pure" filming approach, but it's always a means to put forth the subjective point of view of a "biased" individual filmmaker or group of filmmakers. Perhaps a film like Hearts and Minds which wears its political persuasion on its sleeve is more honest and, in a way, less dangerous for the discourse about objective journalism, than is a film which one way or another tries to conceal or be subtle about its maker's intentions.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Anita Monga Era at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

As I find myself with less and less of the time and (perhaps more importantly) the ability to direct my focus away from the world's turmoil to write about cinema as much as I'd like to, I become increasingly protective of my old articles and interviews. I'm not proud of this feeling; I know it's the opposite of how most wordsmiths far more talented than I feel about their older pieces; to generalize from discussions I've had with some of them it's clear that many of them can't bear to look at most of their prior work, and that this feeling of near-disgust is one of their motivations for continuing to push themselves to become better writers. 

But for me, even though I of course see turns of phrase and ideas in prior writing that I wouldn't choose to employ today, I still find value in many of my past musings. So it was very disappointing to learn last month that all of the articles I wrote for publication at the Fandor streaming service's Keyframe website between 2011 and 2016 had disappeared from the "live" internet (though a few, though not all, of them still existed in google caches and the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, last I checked) as part of Fandor's rebranding. What's worse is that so much of the other, better writing by other cinephiles and critics on that site seems to have disappeared too. I'm so glad that at least David Hudson, who'd been such an essential voice at GreenCine (R.I.P.) and The Auteurs (now Mubi) before his time at Keyframe, has found a home worthy of his Daily dispatches, namely Criterion

When I contacted Fandor about the disappearance of my Keyframe articles, I was told that "all content" from Keyframe would soon be republished on soon. While waiting for that to occur, assuming it ever really does, I thought I'd republish some of my older articles here on my otherwise-underused blog. Being that tonight is the opening night of one of my annual cinephiliac highlights, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, I thought I'd start with this 2014 piece in which I discussed the history of the festival and especially the changes that its Artistic Director Anita Monga has made to it since being hired in 2009. Obviously some of the references to years passed have dated during the three years since this piece was originally published at Keyframe/Fandor, and the particular films I'm highlighting in this article aren't screening this weekend. In fact, as Michael Hawley notes in his detailed preview of the 2017 festival, not a single one of the feature-length films showing this year have played at a prior SFSFF (he doesn't say that it's the first time since 2010 that the summer festival includes no repeats of feature films screened at previous summer or winter events; the only repeat I'm expecting is the four-minute-long The Dancing Pig as part of Saturday morning's Magic And Mirth program.) But there are plenty of films I'm extremely excited to see this weekend, foremost among them Ernst Lubitsch's The Doll, which I've been waiting a long time to see on the big screen, the always stirring Battleship Potemkin (pictured at the top of this post), with live music from the Matti Bye Ensemble, and pretty much everything screening on 35mm per the Film On Film Foundation's latest info. (Especially the rarities from Poland, Italy and the Ukraine.) I've also heard great things about some of the movies screening digitally like The Informer and Terje Vigen, and will probably want to revisit longtime favorites like The Freshman and A Page of Madness as well.

Without further ado, here's the republication of my May 29, 2014 article "The Anita Monga Era at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival", relatively unchanged other than the links and images.
Twenty Junes ago, San Francisco moviegoers were first made aware of something called simply the Silent Film Festival, described as "a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the art of silent film and its value as a record of early 20th century life." This tiny upstart, run by two people (co-founders Melissa Chittick and Stephen Salmons) out of a one-bedroom apartment, had yet to consummate its first actual festival. It was making its debut in symbiosis with an already established festival, the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, then in its 18th edition (and now running 38 years strong as Frameline). This launch was a single Sunday afternoon Castro Theatre screening of Ernst Lubitsch's 1919 gender-bending comedy I Don't Want To Be A Man, with Dennis James providing Wurlitzer organ accompaniment and Leigh Crow (a.k.a. Elvis Herselvis) on hand to recite the English translation of German subtitles. Sandwiched between showings of Dionne Brand's documentary Long Time Comin' and the posthumously-assembled Derek Jarman film Glitterbug, I Don't Want To Be A Man was a hit with the SFLGFF audience, and a tangible foundation had been laid for future success. 
It would be another two years of fundraising and community-building before the first actual San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) was underway in July 1996. Three feature films (Gretchen the Greenhorn, Lucky Star and Ben-Hur) and a program of shorts, fragments and trailers from lost films (including Lubitsch's Oscar-winning The Patriot) packed a Castro Sunday with 1800 attendees. Everything screened as superior 35mm prints played at the proper projection speed, with expert musical accompaniment. This has been the template the SFSFF has followed ever since. Initially slow-growing (the 1998 event actually scaled back to one film - Erich Von Stroheim's S.F.-shot Greed - and was billed as a benefit for the festival, but has retroactively been counted as the 3rd annual festival), SFSFF expanded from one packed Castro day to two in its seventh year, adding a third day to its summer festival and an annual winter screening in year 10. This weekend the nineteenth edition of the festival will screen more than twenty-five films in eighteen programs over four days, plus a free presentation of recent work from archivists Bryony Dixon and Dan Streible, and industry veterans Craig Barron and Ben Burtt at the "Amazing Tales From The Archives" showcase Friday morning. 
In 2009 Anita Monga took the reins of Artistic Director over from Salmons. 'Peaceful Transition of Power' is an understatement here, as he was ready to step away from the organization he'd helped create, just as Chittick had a few years prior, and was overjoyed to be able to pass it to a beloved and veteran film booker (Monga oversaw the Castro's regular programming for sixteen years until 2004) with deep contacts in the distribution world. Since then the organization has been more ambitious and successful than ever, continuing the incremental annual expansion of its summer programs while mounting weekend retrospectives for individual silent-era directors (so far: Alfred Hitchcock and Charlie Chaplin) and special events like, at Oakland's über-grand Paramount Theatre, Carl Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc with a full orchestra and chorus and the to-date only four North American screenings of Abel Gance's triple-projector epic Napoléon in its full Photoplay restoration by Kevin Brownlow, with Carl Davis conducting his symphonic score. Annual attendance has grown to 18,000 and the festival has become at least as internationally significant as any silent film showcase outside Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Italy. 
Under Chittick and Salmons, SFSFF tended to avoid most of the silent film staples of Film History 101 classes in favor of films made, whether by auteurs or by skilled craftsmen and women, with entertainment rather than self-conscious artistry in mind. Though launched with a German film, the festival proper didn't feature a foreign-made film until its fourth year when Lev Kuleshov's By The Law was shown. Non-American films continued to be programmed but they were more likely to be lesser-known gems from Shanghai or Latin America than "warhorses" from Scandinavia or the Weimar Republic. Monga's arrival coincided with an explosion of European films in the festival line-ups, and this year's edition is the most impressively international yet, with two feature films from Germany and an unprecedented three from British producers, two from Sweden, two from the Soviet Union, and two from East Asia. Language barriers some filmgoers experience with subtitled sound pictures aren't an issue for silent pictures. "With silent film you don't have to be constrained because people aren't speaking in words; they're speaking in intertitles which can be easily translated." Monga reminded me when I interviewed her last week. "In the silent era everybody really sounds how you think they sound." 
Monga's shown a few extremely famous European silents when there's been a special reason to, like premiering Fritz Lang's Metropolis reunited with footage that had been missing from it for over eighty years, introducing San Francisco audiences to Swedish composer Matti Bye and his ensemble with a signature accompaniment for Häxan, or showcasing Pandora's Box in a new photochemical restoration. But for the most part she eschews the "warhorses" as well, in favor of demolishing audience stereotypes. For 2014 she's picked films by Kuleshov, Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu, but in each case they're films that go against the grain of their auteurs' reputation. Ozu's gangster picture Dragnet Girl has been called a "film noir" by David Bordwell, and may be the only film the Japanese family drama/comedy specialist made in which a gun is fired. Dreyer's The Parson's Widow is an uncharacteristically ironic comedy by the ponderous and austere director of Vampyr and Ordet. And Kuleshov, best known for his theory of using editing to change audience perception of an individual shot, made only one feature-length comedy and it screens Saturday night. The Extraordinary Adventures Of Mr. West In the Land of the Bolsheviks, as scholar Vlada Petrić has noted, does indeed utilize the "Kuleshov effect" when it intercuts its American-in-Moscow protagonist with real archival footage of a Red Square march to make it appear as if the Harold Lloyd-inspired character is integrated into a space the actor never occupied, the scene resonates with comic absurdity. It's a proto-Zelig moment. 
Most of the other international selections are truly obscure, at least here in the land of Mr. West Coast. I'd be pretty surprised to learn that China's first international prize-winning film The Song Of The Fisherman (by Cai Chusheng, slightly better known for The Spring River Flows East) or late-1920s German dramas Harbor Drift and Under the Lantern, had screened in a Bay Area cinema since the silent era, or ever. Monga singled out Swedish actress/director Karin Swanstrom's The Girl In Tails as particularly (though of course not literally) "made for San Francisco". She told me "it interweaves all of these disparate stories and there's a retreat with a group of wild women: intellectuals and lesbians and women living apart from society, embracing their goofy nephew who comes with the transgressing girl in tails. It was a surprise to me and I think people will really love it." 
One signature of Monga's programming is the annual inclusion of some kind of documentary in the summer program. I use the term loosely to include an exhilarating formalist study like Man With A Movie Camera or an ethnographic slice-of-life like Legong: Dance of the Virgins, but there's no mistaking The Epic Of Everest for anything other than history in the making. Filmed by Captain J. B. L. Noel, formerly of a British Army regiment in North India and an explorer in his own right, this chronicling of a G. Leigh Mallory's climbing team attempt to summit the planet's highest peak is rich in slices of Tibetan life, mountaineering drama, and Himalayan views that would make even Leni Riefenstahl gasp for breath. It's also a triumph of filmmaking technology's ability to withstand extremely harsh natural conditions, much like Herbert Ponting's footage of Captain Scott's doomed mission to the South Pole, which greatly inspired Noel even before it was edited into the form shown at the 2011 SFSFF: The Great White Silence
There are, of course, plenty of American films in the 2014 festival program, including six features and a generous helping of short films of various kinds. The opening night film is one of the landmark Hollywood films of the early 1920s and the one that made Rudolph Valentino a screen giant: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Cited by no less an authority than Kevin Brownlow as "the greatest World War I picture" it's an ideal choice for the festival to commemorate the 100th anniversary of The Great War. Monga promised they'll be showing "Brownlow's own restored print. So Patrick Stanbury, Kevin's partner at Photoplay, will be in the projection booth, changing the speeds as the film goes. It's 132 minutes but it is not all the same speed." The musical accompaniment to this Argentine-centric film will be provided by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, who are celebrating an anniversary as well, as they banded together as the Mont Alto Tango and Ragtime Orchestra 25 years ago. 
For the fourth straight summer, the SFSFF will screen a film starring acrobat extraordinaire Douglas Fairbanks. Like Mr. Fix-It and The Half-Breed before it, this year's selection The Good Bad Man is one of the lesser-known of the eleven films he made under the directorial guidance of Allan Dwan (the better-known ones include A Modern Musketeer and Robin Hood). All three films were restored with direct support from the festival, in fact. Mr. Fix-It was aided by the SFSFF preservation fund, and both The Half-Breed and The Good Bad Man are in fact SFSFF restorations (aided by archival partners of course) outputted to 35mm presentation prints that require special projection equipment. "The Castro projectors have variable speeds, but they don't go down as slow as The Good Bad Man needs. That creates a lot of flicker on screen, so we have to replace the blades. It's a three-blade shutter instead of a two-blade shutter," Monga explained to me. "We control it at the Castro, so we know that the print is not going to be ruined with one turn through the projector. That's the fate of 35mm. You can wreck a really expensive print really fast." 
This fragility, and its effect on the policies of archives and distributors that supply films to a festival like this, is why the SFSFF is increasingly employing digital projection. About two-thirds of the 2013 summer festival program was screened on 35mm prints, while this year it's expected to be about half-and-half. All the slapstick comedy screenings, for example, are planned to be shown via DCP, for instance, including both of the Buster Keaton showings. A newly-discovered alternate version of his short The Blacksmith debuts as part of a program presented by Paris archivist Serge Bromberg (also including work by Roscoe Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin), and the festival closes with one of Keaton's biggest commercial successes The Navigator, preceded by an animated short from the Soviet Union called Pochta. Monga sounds particularly excited about this East-West program pairing. "There's something that is going to be perfect about putting it before the Keaton. In The Navigator particularly there's a kind of Rube Goldberg-ian aspect to the actions, and Pochta's forward momentum is all the letters being sent around the world in search of a guy who's one step ahead of the letter. You get to see this amazing progression." 
In fact every one of the SFSFF programs is a testament to the international cross-connections that informed cinema history as it was being made, and to those that continue to inform its rediscovery and restoration. The exportable nature of film has always defined it, especially in the years before recorded dialogue created obstacles to immediate comprehension of images across language-segregating boundaries. Every foreign filmmaker on display this weekend was directly influenced by American films, and it's fair to say all the Americans were influenced by international filmmakers as well. And it's through international archival cooperation that many of these films are being presented today. Midnight Madness, a DeMille Pictures production, was thought lost until it was repatriated from its hiding place in a New Zealand archive in 2010. A similar story involving the Czech Film Archive is responsible for the availability of the 1928 version of Ramona, starring Mexican import to Hollywood Dolores Del Rio and made by the most thoroughly American of the weekend's directors: Chickasaw actor-turned-director Edwin Carewe. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival's motto has long been "True art transcends time." It may be time to add a corollary. It transcends distance as well.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Terri Saul on Donkeyote

Image from Donkeyote provided by SFFILM
Today is the final day of the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival, and though there are a couple programs currently at RUSH status, you can still buy tickets to most of today's slate and avoid having to wait in line to see if you can obtain a seat. The Roxie seems to be the most popular of the festival's three remaining venues, as I can attest after attending an audience-packed shorts program there last night. The venue's 4PM screening of Donkeyote, Chico Pereira's Golden Gate Award competitor (though not among the award-winners) is your last chance to see a 60th San Francisco International Film Festival film at the venue without braving the RUSH lines for Shorts 2 (including the GGA winning Univitellin, In the Wake of the Ghost Ship and American Paradise) or Endless Poetry. I haven't seen Donkeyote yet but local artist, writer & annual contributor to my "I Only Have Two Eyes" repertory round-up Terri Saul has and offered to write a short capsule for publication here. Here's what she says:
Manolo, 78-year-old errant knight (and Pereira’s uncle) sets out with his best friend, a donkey, Gorrión to take a long walk across Spain as a precursor to retracing the Trail of Tears. The man-donkey friendship is shown via shallow close-ups of the donkey’s grizzled chin as he nudges our man onward. Competing for Most Stubborn Rover they both suffer the consequences of a chase. The drunken reciting of ancient poetry in a Spanish shepherd’s dialect and the singing of a workers' song offset Western frontiersman tropes. Our picaresque crew at times becomes so displaced that we, by comparison, feel sorted.
Thanks so much, Terri!

Tomorrow the Roxie hosts an enticing 16mm archival anomalies program presented by Craig Baldwin and screens the insane Nicholas Cage movie Vampire's Kiss; other upcoming bookings there include the SF Green Film Festival (including a 35th anniversary, 35mm screening of Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill director Judy Irving's nuclear documentary Dark Circle), MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS screenings of Bring In On/Revenge of the Cheerleaders (the latter an amazing grindhouse gem with a screenplay by Nathaniel Dorksy), Blue Velvet/Peyton Place and The Fifth Element/Run Lola Run, a large David Lynch celebration, and much more.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Tom Luddy's Long Happy Life

Image from Nocturama provided by SFFILM
My first week or so at the San Francisco International Film Festival was pretty successful. I saw many solid movies, only one real dud (sorry, Golden Exits, it's you not me) and one absolutely gripping feature, Nocturama, that is really sticking with me and making me eagerly anticipate a chance to see it again (it's supposed to be commercially released theatrically in July, although I'm not sure if that's just in New York or not; no San Francisco dates have been announced yet.) I also really enjoyed the Who Cares, Who Sees: Experimental Shorts program although I feel a bit bad that I skipped out on the last short in the set (Jesse McLean's See a Dog, Hear a Dog) in order to race from the Roxie to the Castro for the transcendent Parallel Spaces: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Bitchin Bajas With Jerome Hiler program, which I hope to write more about soon as well. Here's hoping that the Crossroads festival coming to SFMOMA May 19-21 includes it in its program when it's announced tomorrow. (In fact, I'd be happy to rewatch any of that program's films, especially Brigid McCaffrey's brilliantly-colored, hand-processed Bad mama, who cares or Christoph Gir​ardet & Matthias Müller's haunting personne in a future festival like Crossroads). None of the above-mentioned films has another SFFILM playdate; of the titles I saw that do, I was most impressed with the Catalan amnesia drama The Next Skin.

One highlight of the weekend was the Sunday afternoon presentation of the Mel Novikoff Award, named for the former owner and/or operator of many historic Frisco cinemas (including the Castro), to former Pacific Film Archive director, Telluride Film Festival co-founder and co-director, and storied producer of films of all sorts, Tom Luddy. One of the great highlights of my blogging "career" was when Luddy responded by e-mail to my obituary of his friend and collaborator Chris Marker, and then allowed me to publish some of his recollections of working with Marker. Although I've never had the gumption to introduce myself to Luddy on the many occasions I've seen him at a local screening, I feel very much like a personal beneficiary of his famed generosity. Of course I also have greatly benefited from viewing films he had a hand in getting produced (like Jean-Luc Godard's Every Man For Himself and Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi), or revived (like Mikhail Kalatozov's I Am Cuba and countless others).

Alice Waters onstage at the Castro Theatre to introduce the Mel Novikoff Award presented by SFFILM to Tom Luddy, April 9, 2017.
Tommy Lau, courtesy of SFFILM
I just said that the award presentation was a highlight, but in fact that's not precisely true. The presentation of the spire-shaped award itself was unmemorable in itself. Luddy even left it on the table as he exited the Castro stage, which in the moment seemed to prove Michael Barker of Sony Pictures' Classics right when he said, "People like Tom Luddy do not seek awards. They go out of their way not to receive them," although I later learned that an in-fact grateful Luddy was asked to leave it behind by the festival staff so they could engrave it.  Barker said this shortly after being brought out by the first speaker of the afternoon, SFFILM director Noah Cowen, who stressed that Luddy was in fact a member of the Mel Novikoff Award selection committee himself, and that his comrades in the group had "gone behind his back" to select him for the honor. Barker's encomium (followed by similar but not overlapping ones from Peter Becker of the Criterion Collection and Alice Waters of Chez Panisse) had competition from an attention-diverting slideshow of photographs of Luddy posing with various directors and other folks; I identified Les Blank, Wim Wenders, Philip Kaufman, Eleanor and Francis Ford Coppola (the latter three in attendance at the Castro as well) in one and Alexander Payne in another, while certain other figures were unrecognizable to me. However, his address was unfazed by audience members clapping for favorite pictures projected onto the screen above him, and he related how Andrei Tarkovsky told him Luddy speaks "perfect Russian," how Akira Kurosawa said of him upon disembarking from a long plane flight, "that guy plays a great game of golf," and how he'd personally been steered by Luddy to the works of Ozu, to Fritz Lang's Die Niebelungen, "the greatest war film ever made", and to the amazing 1912 silent The Land Beyond the Sunset. Becker, up next, credited Luddy with helping him appreciate and ultimately commit to restoring and releasing a pair of trilogies, Satyajit Ray's Apu and Marcel Pagnol's Marseille a.k.a. Fanny trilogy. Leah Garchik, reporting on the Castro event in the San Francisco Chronicle, has summarized Becker's tale of a Luddy-organized excursion he took with several aforementioned directors. Finally, Waters, just in from a Bloomington, Indiana screening of The Baker's Wife, talked of being brought by Luddy to Pagnol screenings at Novikoff's long-gone Surf Theatre and read a passage, from her upcoming memoir, about her introduction via Luddy to films by Kenneth Anger, Max Ophüls, Bruce Conner and Alain Resnais.

For better or worse, this long build-up to the award presentation itself felt less like a public presentation and more like an intimate industry event than any Novikoff Award event I've attended (namely, Manny Farber in 2003, Paolo Cherchi Usai in 2004, Jim Hoberman in 2008, Serge Bromberg in 2011, Pierre Rissient in 2012 and Peter Von Bagh in 2013). The real highlight of the afternoon came after the statuette was delivered to its recipient and he expounded on his life as a cinephile-mover-and-shaker in an interview with critic Todd McCarthy. From a chair on the Castro stage (and magnified by video camera feed running above him), Luddy told stories from various stages of his life amidst screens and the artists who fill them. It didn't feel like name-dropping to me while hearing it, so I hope it doesn't seem like it when I try to summarize what he said.

Film critic Todd McCarthy and Mel Novikoff Award recipient Tom Luddy onstage at the Castro Theatre during the 2017 SFFILM Festival, April 9, 2017.
Pamela Gentile, courtesy of SFFILM
Luddy talked about the spark that ignited his movie passion: a high school religion class taught by a friend of Elia Kazan's, who took him on field trips to see The Ballad of a Soldier and films by Visconti, Bergman and the like at places like the Beekman and the Paris Theatre (although he later became delighted to realize he'd seen a Luis Buñuel film, namely Robinson Crusoe, at age 10). When he moved from New York to Berkeley he plugged right into the local cinema scene at a time when Sidney Peterson, James Broughton, Bruce Conner, Christopher MacLaine and Kenneth Anger were in the Bay Area. He attended screenings inspired by SFMOMA's Art in Cinema series which had been founded by Frank Stauffacher in the 1940s, such as Bruce Baillie's Canyon Cinema screenings "in churches in Kensington." He went to Ed Landberg's Cinema Guild just after Pauline Kael had been fired from it, sparking impassioned boycotts; he hadn't met Kael yet and thus had no loyalty to betray. Soon he was putting on shows himself, renting prints from local distributors like Willard Morrison's Audio Films and Bob Greensfelder of Kinesis, Incorporated (Greensfelder would later be instrumental with Luddy in helping Agnès Varda create her wonderful short Uncle Yanco.) Luddy ran Cal's F.W. Murnau Film Society (named for one of his longstanding favorite directors- and mine, too) and later, the Telegraph Repertory Cinema, which for a time brought in more box office revenue for screenings of Andy Warhol films than anywhere else in the country.

Asked by McCarthy about the San Francisco International Film Festival's early days, Luddy said "it was my film school." His first year attending was 1962, "when it was the only film festival in the Western Hemisphere." He fondly recalled Albert Johnson's afternoon tributes to key cinema figures and rattled off the line-up for just one year, 1965: "Walt Disney. Busby Berkeley. Gene Kelly. Hal Roach. John Ford. John Frankenheimer. King Vidor. Leo McCarey. Lewis Milestone. Mervyn LeRoy. William Wellman." A few other names from other festival years were tossed out by Luddy and McCarthy (who was also in the Bay Area by the late 1960s): Raoul Walsh, Jacques Tati, Bette Davis, William Wyler, and Rouben Mamoulian. And of course Howard Hawks, for whom Johnson had prepared such an extensive compilation of clips from throughout his career that the director was able to introduce the screening, head to Kezar Stadium to watch an entire 49ers football game, and be back in time for the post-montage interview.

Tom Luddy, recipient of the Mel Novikoff Award presented by SFFILM. April 9, 2017.
Pamela Gentile, courtesy of SFFILM
Eventually Luddy became director of the Pacific Film Archive, and from that position co-founded Telluride, to where he was particularly proud of bringing an array of guests without perhaps the name recognition of Johnson's cohort, but whose cinematic contributions arguably stand as high: he listed Dusan Makavajev, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage and Francis Ford Coppola, and legendary art directors Ben Carré and Alexander Trauner. Most especially, Napoléon director Abel Gance, who at nearly ninety remarked, according to Luddy, "I'd rather die on my way to Colorado than vegetate in this cottage" when he offered to bring him there from Nice. Also cinematographer John Alton, a long-standing "holy grail" for the Telluride team to bring, and who was finally tracked down at age 92 after decades living abroad.

Luddy said he left his position at the Pacific Film Archive due to frustrations with the University bureaucracy at the time; he gave one example of being left on the hook for expenses, that ought to have been paid by the school, from Jean-Luc Godard's visit to the institution. By then he'd struck up a friendship with Francis Ford Coppola, who welcomed him into the fold at his American Zoetrope with open arms. Together with George Lucas, they helped secure backing from 20th Century Fox for Akira Kurosawa's 1979 film Kagemusha, after a shared meal at Chez Panisse in which the elder master explained how he couldn't find enough funding in Japan, and the younger three couldn't help but notice the scars from his 1971 suicide attempt on his hands. After Luddy presented Gance's Napoléon at the Avenue Theatre with Bob Vaughn performing an organ accompaniment, Coppola was inspired to try to present it at Radio City Music Hall with "a symphony" by his father Carmine Coppola as accompaniment. Luddy helped make that happen, too, and went on to produce Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters with Paul Schrader, Barfly with Barbet Schroeder and Wind with Carroll Ballard. Those are just a few of the titles he highlighted from the Castro stage!

Tom Luddy, recipient of the Mel Novikoff Award presented by SFFILM onstage at the Castro Theatre, April 9, 2017.
Pamela Gentile, courtesy of SFFILM
Meanwhile, in 1979 Luddy was called in by San Francisco International Film Festival director Claude Jarman to help shepherd the festival when he no longer wanted to remain. At that time in festival history, this meant taking on the responsibility of $150,000 worth of debt. Luddy agreed to volunteer his time to help keep the festival alive through this period, but only if Mel Novikoff would join him in the responsibility. Novikoff agreed and allowed the festivals to use some of his theatre screens without a rental fee for a time, until George Gund stepped in and saved the festival from its debts.

Luddy said that working at the non-profit Telluride Film Festival at the same time as working as a producer in the for-profit movie business is part of the reason why he kept a fairly low-profile through those years, refusing interviews in order to avoid drawing attention to his unique, and perhaps to some, questionable, position. But looking at what he was able to build by straddling both sides of the non-profit/for-profit line, it's hard to begrudge his dual devotions.

The films he chose to screen after the discussion represented these two sides of Luddy pretty well. First, we saw Une Bonne à Tout Faire, a brief piece made by Jean-Luc Godard on the incredible Dean Tavoularis-designed casino set of the American Zoetrope production One From the Heart. Intended as a test for his 1982 film Passion, Godard creates a luminous tableau quite reminiscent of some of the most memorable shots in that film, turning a real film production site into an imaginary one in which Andrei Konchalovsky, portraying a director, and Vittorio Storaro, portraying a cinematographer, communicate with each other in un-subtitled Russian and Italian, respectively, as if locked in a Las Vegas Tower of Babel. Though it was never released at the time, Godard sent Luddy this digital version of the short, transferred from the 1-light dailies for a 2006 screening at the Pompidou. The film's actual cinematographer Ed Lachman (La SoufrièreCarol) is on the hunt for the original negative materials so a preservation (and, I would hope, release) print can be struck, but in the meantime what we saw looked pretty darn good.

Image from A Long, Happy Life provided by SFFILM
The digital presentation of Soviet filmmaker Gennady Shpalikov's A Long and Happy Life, however, didn't fare as well. Though there clearly is a beautiful, equally Jean Vigo- and Michaelangelo Antonioni-influenced film in there somewhere, it was hard to fully appreciate it through the low-contrast, cloudy image quality that appeared to be not much better than the version currently viewable on YouTube. I heard through the grapevine that there was originally a plan to screen a 35mm print from the BAMPFA collection (thus connecting this choice directly to Luddy's non-profit career), but that it was found to be unsubtitled and thus a digital substitute was made. This seems like the perfect opportunity to bring in digital soft-titles over a 35mm print, as has been undertaken at the Noir City festival, for instance. For whatever reason, SFFILM and its partners decided against this option.

Though both films screened as DCP, Luddy himself is clearly for the use of 35mm prints when possible. Before introducing the screening, and after listing a few all-time favorite filmmakers at McCarthy's behest (including Julien Duvivier, Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Alexander Dovzhenko, Mikio Naruse, and Kenji Mizoguchi, as well Murnau, Ray, Bergman, Godard and Coppola) he expressed appreciation for Bay Area audiences and presenters. He singled out the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (which has recently announced its June slate, by the way), for being able to "fill this theater for relatively obscure silent films," as well as Noir City and the completely-non-digital Stanford Theatre. He noted that his friend, critic David Thomson, was helping prepare a summer program tribute to the Warner Brothers studio, stressing that David Packard would be striking new 35mm prints of certain titles currently unavailable to show in that format. Obviously the series will probably include plenty of well-known titles like the Adventures of Robin Hood, The Jazz Singer and Mildred Pierce but my mind is still racing imagining all the possible rarities I might finally be able to see in their intended format this summer. Rarities by Walsh? Hawks? Wellman? Frank Borzage? One Way Passage? Thunder Over the Plains? The Blue Gardenia? Perhaps even the namesake for this blog? I'm trying not to raise my expectations too high.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

My 60th San Francisco International Film Festival Plans

Image from Xiu Xiu: the Sent-Down Girl supplied by SFFILM
Goodbye SFIFF. *sniff* Hello SFFILM!

The San Francisco International Film Festival, while celebrating its 60th iteration, is undergoing a major rebranding. As Michael Hawley points out in his March 24 festival preview piece, we saw "hints of impending change in some of the graphics used during last year's festival and now it's become official. Henceforth, the festival's parent organization, the San Francisco Film Society, will be officially known as SFFILM, and the preferred name for its annual festival is the SFFILM Festival." Hawley's been attending since 1976, 23 years longer than I have, so he's seen more dramatic changes over the years (like when it moved from October to April in the early eighties); what I've seen over the past eighteen has generally felt more like natural evolutions and minor tweaks by comparison.

What's in a name? Maybe not much, on it's own. I'm not quite sure what factors played into the change, though when Hawley quotes The Festival's fourth-year Executive Director Noah Cowen as saying it "provides a new kind of flexibility" and "reflects the reality and breadth of our programming" I wonder what former words were found inflexible or unrealistic. "International"? Though the Cowen-era "Marquee Presentations" section of the program, focusing on some of the more accessible, distribution-bound, talent-accompanied titles is perhaps a bit less global in reach than in prior years, it never really was the place to find films made in languages other than English (or perhaps French), and other sections, from "Masters" and "Vanguard" to "Dark Wave" and "Golden Gate Award Competitions", not to mention, of course, "Global Visions", seem to be about as "International" as ever. Furthermore, The Festival seems perfectly happy to use the I-word as long as it's spelled out, which ultimately may give the International component of the event a bit more visibility, not less. I suspect the real culprit is the word "Society" which sounds rather snooty on it's own and not much less so with the word "Film" in front of it, calling to mind the high-minded, European-originating groups also known as cineclubs that sprang up nearly a hundred years ago and that may seem especially alien in a modern digital-distribution-dominated landscape. Or maybe they just wanted to minimize confusion with other SFIFF organizations like the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival or the Syrian Federation of International Freight Forwarders. Of course now someone has to figure out what the all-caps SFFILM might be an acronym for: San Francisco's Foreign, Indie & Local Movies? Some Fab Films I Like, Man? (or Ma'am?) Striking Further Forward Into Limitless Media? Someone's gonna come up with something better than those...

But there are bigger changes for this 60th annual festival than just the name-change. The festival's timing has been moved up fifteen days from the slot in the calendar it had occupied since I started attending in 1999. On an international scale, this gives SFFILM more breathing room before the beginning of Cannes in mid-May. Nationally, it bumps it up to before Tribeca, which has in some previous years proved a thorn in The Festival's side in terms of booking all the films and guests it might have wanted to bring in a perfect world. Locally, the move has already caused some other festivals to shuffle their dates. (Certainly the Green Film Fest, probably SF Cinematheque's  Crossroads too, and I can't help but wonder if CAAMFest's recent announcement that it's moving its traditionally-March-held event to Asian Pacific American Heritage Month for 2018 is partially spurred on by an expectation that SFFILM would be permanently vacating May.) Starting and ending the festival on Wednesdays feels rather earth-shattering in a town in which almost every film festival begins on a Thursday or Friday and ends on a Sunday or Thursday. If it's successful, will this move also be copied by the myriad of other local fests?

Image from The Green Fog - A San Francisco Fantasia supplied by SFFILM
More regular screening venues have been commandeered than ever (at least in my memory) including, for the first time, my beloved (closest to my home and to my workplace of all festival venues) Yerba Buena Center For the Arts, which will utilize its normal 92-seat Screening Room and outfit its 700+ seat Theatre, normally used for live performances and lectures, with DCP projectors. I'm excited to check out a movie or two in a space I never have before. That goes double for the Dolby Cinema space at 1275 Market, which opened for private demonstrations and press screenings last Fall but as far as I know hasn't been available to the ticket-buying public until now; it'll be used only during SFFILM's first weekend. A good number of screenings there are already at RUSH status so if you want to see the space buy your tickets soon if you'd rather not wait in line for a chance at an emptied seat. With the addition of these new spaces, pretty much all of my favorite San Francisco cinemas are being used, the few exceptions being Artists' Television Access (and Craig Baldwin's Other Cinema-within-a-cinema, which brings two programs during SFFILM), and the sporadically-used New People, which is hosting an all-digital Cherry Blossom Film Festival in the second year in a row of the San Francisco International Film Festival's absence from Japantown). Add in BAMPFA in Berkeley as another major venue for ten days, and there's not many options (mainly just the Stanford, which is running a Val Lewton retrospective this month, and the Niles Film Museum) for Frisco Bay cinephiles wanting to attend non-commercial screenings outside The Festival's purview while it's happening. I'm especially pleased that the Castro Theatre is being utilized daily for 12 of the 15 festival days, not just for certain high-profile events like tonight's opening night selection Landline or the amazing-sounding closing night The Green Fog on April 16th (which in this case celebrates the closing of some venues but not others, as screenings continue at the Mission venues the Roxie, Victoria & Alamo for a few days after that), as it usually has been over the past decade-plus.

Which brings me to the other major change I notice in this year's festival: awards presentations. When I first started attending, the San Francisco International Film Festival presented four major awards to cinematic luminaries in four distinct categories. The Akira Kurosawa Award for directing had at that point gone to world cinema titans such as Kurosawa, Robert Bresson, Satyajit Ray, Ousmane Sembène, Manoel de Oliveira, and Im Kwon-Taek, as well as a few genuine Hollywood legends like Arthur Penn and Stanley Donen. Shortly after I began paying attention the awardees began a sixteen-year streak of being either American or else having each directed major English-language hit films. (During this time the award's name changed to the Irving M. Levin Award, after The Festival's 1957 founder.) The vast majority of these more recent awardees were perfectly solid and sometimes inspired choices, but only a few (like Robert Altman and Werner Herzog) tapped into my cinephile pleasure centers as deeply as I might hope, and as a group, even with a Walter Salles here and a Mira Nair there, they didn't feel like they truly embodied the "International" in the festival's name. At least the selections were more diverse than the recipients of the Peter J. Owens Award for acting over the years. Again it's a very solid list of stars who have proved (and in a few cases, later disproved) their serious commitment to acting, but as a group it's all white, mostly male, and nearly all American with only a couple Brits and one Australian to justify the "International" label. By contrast I could rarely quibble with the choice of recipients for the Persistence of Vision Award to directors of animation, documentary, short-form and/or experimental work or the Mel Novikoff Award presented to individuals or institutions (most commonly critics, programmers, distributors, or archivists) whose work has "enhanced the filmgoing public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema," both of which have done an excellent job alternating between honoring already-beloved figures and bringing attention to lesser-known but equally vital contributors to a thriving cinephile culture.

I have wonderful memories of attending, often at the Castro Theatre, the public conversations with recipients of each of these four awards, as well as with more recent addition Kanbar Award for screenwriting (notably Paul Schrader's 2015 presentation, though he spoke more about his work as a director and they screened his astonishing Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters, which feels to me more like a director's than writer's achievement.) But I've long assumed that the forces guiding these awardee selections, at least for the Levin, Owens & Kanbar Awards, had their eyes less on these for-the-general-public events and more on the annual Film Society Awards Night black-tie gala events that cost to attend, at minimum, as much as some of the cash prizes for Golden Gate Awards Jury Prize winners. I'd never had anyone who didn't work for the festival admit to me they'd attended these tony affairs, and plopping it in the middle of a two-week cinephile event always felt like a weird disconnect. The disconnect grew a bit wider in the past few years with the addition of a new honor, the George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award, given under apparently rather vague criteria to worthy cinema-related luminaries such as Peter Coyote and Ray Dolby, but with no affordable public program attached. Obviously nonprofit fundraising is important, and if celebrity appearances help grease the wheels so that an organization like SFFILM can fulfill its mission to help foster film culture, I'm not going to dismiss its importance. But there are signs that in the most recent chunk of the San Francisco International Film Festival's six-decade lifespan, it's become overly-important, perhaps even to the detriment of The Festival's public programs. (Did you ever notice one mid-fest night in which the films and guests on offer seemed a bit lackluster in comparison to every other? That was probably the Film Society Awards Night; most of the top-level festival staff was preoccupied with that event and so other programs that night sometimes tended to be easier-to-introduce, guest-free ones).

Image from My Name Is Khan supplied by SFFILM
So I'm really quite happy to hear that this year SFFILM will be moving its gala fundraiser to the Fall (no doubt to coincide with "Awards season") and, if I understand it correctly, taking the Levin, Owens and Kanbar Awards with it. It doesn't mean there aren't plenty of awards and tributes planned for the next few weeks; it just means they've all been arranged with an eye exclusively to the public presentation and not in selling multi-thousand-dollar tables to a fancy dinner. The Mel Novikoff Award is going to a long-overdue local recipient, Tom Luddy, a storied figure in Frisco Bay and indeed international cinephilia, whose accomplishments have partially been recorded by Michael Fox in a recent article. I'm excited to see his screening selections A Long Happy Life (a 1966 Soviet drama I'd never heard of before) and the eight-minute-long Une Bonne à Tout Faire, which must be one of the least-commonly seen things ever directed by Jean-Luc Godard, and to hear his conversation with Todd McCarthy at the Castro this Sunday. The P.O.V. Award will go to Lynn Hersman Leeson, another local with a long history in moving-image art going at least as far back as her involvement in the Maysles Brothers' and Charlotte Zwerin's wonderful 1977 documentary Running Fence. And for the first time the George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award will presented at a public event, this time to Eleanor Coppola at an already-RUSH-status screening of her new Paris Can Wait at SFMOMA. Hopefully we'll soon have a clearer picture about just what this award is for. In addition, The Festival has arranged tributes to philanthropist Gordon Gund, writer/producer/director John Ridley, director/writer/producer James Ivory, actor/writer/director Ethan Hawke and actor/producer Shah Rukh Khan. The others are solid choices but I'm thrilled by this last pick: the biggest movie star in the world will be on hand at the Castro, hopefully to launch a series of annual international star tributes, and the film they're showing is a Bollywood-goes-to-Frisco Bay mini-epic (less than three hours is short for an Indian hit) I've been wanting to see for a while: My Name is Khan. The only way it could be better is if they were instead showing his 1993 film that shares my name: Darr. (I learned about it from a festival volunteer over a decade ago.) Surprisingly, there are still tickets available for this.

Of course the soul of the San Francisco International Film Festival is not found so much in the awards and tributes but in the hundred and eighty or so films being screened over the next fifteen days. Be sure to peruse the surfeit of links collected by David Hudson at Keyframe Daily; I'm particularly partial to the advice of trusted friends Max Goldberg and (again, with a more recently published piece) Michael Hawley, who are helping me guide my own viewing selections along with unmentioned-on-Keyframe articles by Kelly Vance and Lincoln Spector. I'd also be remiss not to mention the Bay Area Film Calendar, which notes which of the SFFILM presentations will involve actual reels of film. For the record, it's four programs (one repeated): Joan Chen in person with a 35mm print of her directorial debut (which stunned me on first release; time for a revisit?) Xiu Xiu: the Sent-Down Girl, 16mm presentations of Jerome Hiler films and Guy Maddin's personal selections from the Canyon Cinema catalog, and the only new 35mm film in the program, a 12-minute short by Brigid McCaffrey called Bad mama, who cares, which plays alongside work by Janie Geiser, Matthias Müller and other experimentalists in the Who Cares, Who Sees shorts program. It's a shame this program's only San Francisco showing is nearly at the same time as the Hiler program; those of us who want to see every last scrap of physical film projected at The Festival will either have to give up a prime Saturday night slot to see Bad mama, who cares at BAMPFA, or try our hardest to race from the Roxie to the Castro in hopes of catching both on the same Monday.

Image from The Death of Louis XIV supplied by SFFILM
Without further ado, my own current program plan for the festival (subject to revision):

Thursday, April 6:
Jem Cohen in person with his World Without End (No Reported Incidents), 6:30, BAMPFA
Albert Serra's The Death of Louis XIV, 8:30, BAMPFA

Friday, April 7:
Isaki Lacuesta & Isa Campo's Next Skin, 3:00, YBCA Screening Room
Bertrand Bonello's Nocturama, 6:00, Castro
Alex Ross Perry's Golden Exits, 9:15, YBCA Theater

Saturday, April 8:
Joan Chen in person with her Xiu Xiu: the Sent-Down Girl, 1:00, SFMOMA
Hong Sangsoo's Yourself and Yours, 8:00, Dolby
Alexandre O. Philippe in person with his 78/52, 10:00, Roxie

Sunday, April 9:
Matt Schrader in person with his Score: a Film Music Documentary, 1:00, Dolby (John Debney also expected)
Mel Novikoff Award to Tom Luddy, presenting Gennayi Shpalikov's A Long Happy Life, 4:00, Castro
James Gray in person with his The Lost City of Z, 7:00, YBCA Theater

Monday, April 10:
Shorts program Who Cares, Who Sees, 6:30, Roxie (Untitled, 1925 Part Three director Madi Piller expected)
Shorts program Parallel Spaces, 8:00, Castro (with live music by Bonnie Prince Billy & Bitchin Bajas)

Tuesday, April 11:
Delphine Coulin & Muriel Coulin's The Stopover, 8:45, Victoria

Wednesday, April 12:
Joshua Bonnetta & J.P. Sniadecki's El Mar La Mar, 6:30, YBCA Screening Room
Barbara Kopple in person with her This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous, 8:30, Victoria (Gigi Gorgeous, Ian Roth & Joshua Gamson also expected)

Thursday, April 13:
Anocha Suwichakornpong's By the Time it Gets Dark, 9:15, Alamo

Friday, April 14:
Zhang Hanyi in person presenting his Life After Life, 4:00, BAMPFA
Tribute to Shah Rukh Khan, presenting Karan Johar's My Name is Khan, 8:30, Castro

Saturday, April 15:
Surprise member screening (for the first time I'm a member this year), 10:00, Alamo
Ramahou Keita and Magaajyia Silberfeld in person with their The Wedding Ring, 2:30, Roxie
Shorts program Canyon Cinema 50, 8:30, SFMOMA (Guy Maddin & Antonella Bonfanti in person)

Sunday, April 16:
Zacharias Kunuk's Maliglutit, 1:30, BAMPFA
Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson in person with their The Green Fog, 7:00, Castro (with live music by Kronos Quartet & Jacob Garchik)

Monday, April 17:
Shorts program Shorts 4: New Visions, 8:30, Roxie (It Is What It Is director Cyrus Yoshi Tabar & The Watershow Extravaganza director Sophie Michael expected)

Tuesday, April 18:
Kirill Serebrennikov's The Student, 9:00, Victoria

Wednesday, April 19:
Amat Escalante's The Untamed, 6:00, Victoria
Alejandro Jodorowsky's Endless Poetry, 8:30, Roxie