Tuesday, July 5, 2016

How To Survive A Plague (2012)

Screen capture from official trailer
WHO: Directed, co-written and co-produced by journalist David France- absolutely not to be confused with 2016 Presidential non-candidate David French.

WHAT: Thirty days ago it was the 35th anniversary of the first official reports on what would soon be known to be HIV/AIDS. They were presented by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention on June 5, 1981 and subsequently reported on by the media; the first New York Times article was July 3, 1981. Since that time an estimated 36 million people around the world have died as a result of the disease. It's believed that an even greater number live with HIV today, and that fewer than half of them have access to the anti-retroviral medicines that can keep them in good health. As grim as these numbers are, they represent a huge amount of progress. Rates of transmission and death are decreasing on every continent. Treatment availability is on the upswing nearly everywhere. For this we must thank not just the doctors and scientists fighting the disease, but also the activists who pushed against the homophobia of governments, the media, and even parts of the medical industry, to make HIV/AIDS a priority.

How To Survive a Plague is one of the most inspiring documentaries about political activism ever made. It demonstrates the immense creativity and passion of activists fighting for an HIV/AIDS cure, vaccine, and better treatment in a most immediate, intimate style. The appearance of HIV/AIDS coincided with the invention of the video camcorder, which for the first time allowed individual citizen/journalists to record hours of audio/video footage completely independently (previous video recording devices required a separate technician to handle sound recording). In an age of convenient camera-phones we take for granted how revolutionary this development was for democratizing media.

How to Survive a Plague director David France collected thousands of fellow activists' tapes of highly creative ACT UP and TAG demonstrations and passionate gatherings, and has weaved the highlights together into a coherent and persuasive story of the ten years of struggle that led to the release of protease inhibitors, combination therapy and the first significant drop in the AIDS death rate. It's a remarkable document of the gay community rising to meet a collective challenge, featuring footage that will feel like a predecessor to powerful protest movements of the 21st century. It's the kind of movie that can bring a spark to any viewer's personal activist spirit.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 7PM this evening only at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts screening room.

WHY: I can hardly think of a better Frisco Bay venue in which to see How to Survive a Plague, as a particularly moving moment in the documentary (pictured in the above screen shot) occurred a hop, skip and a jump away at the Moscone Center, where Peter Staley enlisted a vast hall filled with convention-goers into participating in a powerful activist moment. Activism can sometimes take the form of a small, simple, but powerful act of solidarity. No wonder the Oscar-nominated feature screens in conjunction with the YBCA's current art-as-activistm-oriented exhibit Take This Hammer, named for a 1964 documentary featuring James Baldwin which played in the YBCA screening room a couple of years ago, and which is now looped in the gallery lobby daily during open hours (free for anyone to view, not just on a day like today when the entire exhibit is open to the public at no cost). Art critic Ben Davis has contrasted the exhibit against the more ballyhooed re-opened SFMOMA across the street, by calling it a "raw, woolly, sometimes inspiring and disturbing show, representing struggles that are important to think about if you don’t want to become entirely cynical about the future of art or the future of the city."

I have only taken a bit of Take This Hammer in myself thus far, but I already feel galvanized in small but profound ways by it; while at YBCA to view Chantal Akerman's No Home Movie last may my girlfriend Kerry Laitala picked up a poster made by the incredible San Francisco Poster Syndicate, which was passing out political art to attendees that evening. Without a good place to display it so that her neighbors could see, she asked if I'd hang it in my window. Little did I know that just a couple weeks later the subject of the poster would pass underneath it while campaigning with Jane Kim in my neighborhood. Did he see it? Who knows. But it made me all the happier that I was able to vote for him (and for Kim) in the California primary last month. Neither candidate is perfect of course, but I'll be happy to support Kim in November as well, and I hope that Sanders' influence is felt in platform that the Democratic nominee campaigns under between now and then (and of course I will vote for Clinton, given the alternative). I'm pretty sure that it's just a coincidence that Kerry was honored to be named to the YBCA 100 shortly after our visit, but it's certainly a happy one.

I believe this is the final Take This Hammer-inspired event in the YBCA screening room. Today there is also a series of films in conjunction with another YBCA exhibit The Ocean After Nature. Starting July 15th, the venue becomes the surrogate host for its neighbor the Jewish Museum's screening series of Stanley Kubrick films accompanying its current exhibit of the master's props, costumes, designs, etc. YBCA screens all his black-and-white films through July. Rumor has it that the Alamo Drafthouse will show the color films in August, but I have yet to see a schedule for those. Meanwhile, that month, YBCA hosts archivist Jack Stevenson as he puts the spotlight on San Francisco's erotic filmmaking history with a screening of Randy, the Electric Lady.

HOW: Screens as a video; all the footage in the film was captured by video cameras of various generations.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Golden Chance (1915)

Screen capture from Image DVD
WHO: Cecil B. DeMille directed, produced, edited and (with Jeanie Macpherson) co-wrote this film.

WHAT: This is one of my very favorite DeMille pictures, and I even selected it as object of study for a collaborative blogging project several years ago (that seems to have propagated an image to the wikipedia page for Japanese actor Yutake Abe, if nothing else more lasting). Later that year, my friend Laura Horak wrote an article about it and a pair of other Cecil B. DeMille films (as well as one directed by his brother William) released on DVD for The Moving Image journal. Here's an excerpt from her article:
The story follows Mary Denby (Cleo Ridgely), a "Cinderella of the Lower East Side," who escapes from grueling tenement life and her abusive husband, Steve (Horace B. Carpenter), for one magical night. The film is surprisingly explicit about the way money and sex are intertwined. Seeking work as a seamstress, Mary enters Mr. and Mrs. Hillary's "House of Enchantment," where they convince her to play the part of a socialite for a night, unaware that her real purpose is to charm a young millionaire, Roger Manning (Wallace Reid), into investing in Mr. Hillary's business venture. At first, Mary is happy to play her role in exchange for one night of luxurious clothes, shoes, and jewelry but, even after suspecting the nature of the exchange, desperate poverty forces her to accept the money. 
WHERE/WHEN: Screens tonight only at the Edison Theatre in Niles, CA, as part of the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival.

WHY: The Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, while perhaps not as glamorous or public-transit-accessible (or expensive!) as the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, deserves equal consideration from Frisco Bay silent film fans. Its film programming is in many ways just as strong- and for film purists stronger -, its musical accompaniments not as flashy but equally adept and professional, and its extra features, including a walking tour and a train ride, represent a world away from the hustle and bustle of Castro Street.

Additional screenings at this year's festival include rarities and proven favorites from the Essanay Studios which made Niles a movie hub for a few years a century ago, and a pair of films starring the Gish sisters, Nell Gwyn with forgotten Dorothy and a masterpiece (directed by Swedish import auteur Victor Seastrom) The Scarlet Letter with the legendary Lillian.

Of this year's festival screenings, I'm probably most interested in seeing Behind the Front, a Wallace Beery war film whose title seems to refer to the 1919 film that was the big discovery of the SF Silent Film Festival earlier this month for me and for quite a few other festgoers, Behind the Door. Beery played a villain in that, and stole the show out from under Louise Brooks in the festival opener Beggars of Life. I'm especially anxious to see it because it screens with Broncho Billy and the Bandit's Secret, a 35mm made-in-Niles production released just last year, but still unscreened in San Francisco (it's hard to find venues willing and able to show a modern-day 35mm silent short film). 

If you can't make it this weekend, the July Niles schedule has been announced and includes a Gary Cooper Western, a Clara Bow flapper film, a Lon Chaney circus tragedy, and much, much, much more. July schedules for the Stanford, the Castro, YBCA and BAMPFA are also online, so start planning your month if you haven't already!

HOW: Screens from a tinted 16mm print, along with 35mm prints of 2 Niles-produced shorts Broncho Billy's Wild Ride and Slippery Slim and the Impersonator, all with live keyboard accompaniment from Jon Mirsalis.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Nanook of the North (1922)

Screen capture from Music Box Films DVD of The Story of Film
WHO: Robert Flaherty directed this. He was also a producer and (uncredited) writer and cinematographer on the piece.

WHAT: The last time I watched Robert Flaherty's seminal Nanook of the North I was sitting in on a City College of San Francisco course taught by Ira Rothstein. He introduced the showing with a quote from Jean-Luc Godard on fiction or "narrative" films: that they are "nothing more than documentaries of actors at work."

One might say the same thing about non-fiction or "documentary" films as well (I use quotes around the word "documentary" because the term was not in use at the time Nanook of the North was made). Acting is not just merely a profession, marked by its connection to training facilities and professional guilds.  It's also an action that each of us has learned to perform to make it through the varied situations of the modern world.  And when we are conscious that there is a camera trained upon us, we tend to "act" differently than we otherwise would, whether we want to or not.  If the photographer explicitly asks us to pose or to perform a certain action, we're all the more likely to be pulled out of the actions we would take were a camera not present; we may attempt to conform to the requester's expressed wishes, or else rebel against them, but it becomes difficult if not impossible to act as we would if we didn't know the camera was there.

As one learns when watching Claude Massot's 1988 documentary Nanook Revisited (available on the Flicker Alley Blu-Ray edition of Flaherty's film), Nanook of the North was made with the hearty cooperation of its Inuit subjects.  Indeed Allakariallak, the actor who played the title character (Nanook was not his real name) was delighted to comply with his director's requests, which included: acting as if he had not heard a phonograph record before, when in fact he had, and engaging in a walrus hunt using methods that he and his fellow tribesmen had not employed for years - which Erik Barnouw seems to imply was actually an idea generated by Allakariallak himself, knowing it would be in sync with Flaherty's own aims in encasing in the amber of celluloid film the singular traditions of the Inuits.  

It's often noted that Nanook and its offspring like Chang (Cooper & Shoedsack, 1927) are not "pure" documentaries because the actions of their subjects were not merely observed and captured, but directed by their makers, and because they're edited, with the help of title cards, into a narrative form that distorts fact in the service of adventure and excitement (and, say the cynical, box-office). But is there not documentary value in seeing people perform tasks that, even if they may be obsolete on a day-to-day basis, are still in their living muscle memory? Allakariallak may or may not have ever hunted walrus without a rifle himself, but at the very least he'd known people who'd had no other option, and was a far more authentic choice to do so on screen than any Hollywood actor would have been.  As Barnouw wrote about the Inuits involved in the film: "Unquestionably the film reflected their image of their traditional life."

WHERE/WHEN: Nanook of the North screens today only at the Castro Theatre, at 1:45 PM, presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

WHY: Though I haven't seen the shorts screening as part of the Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema program launching the 21st SFSFF's final day, nor the Hal Roach two-reeler What's the World Coming To?, which plays as part of the Girls Will Be Boys noon program, I've seen all five "feature-length" films screening today: Ernst Lubitsch's I Don't Wan't To Be a Man (the other piece of the aforementioned gender-bending showcase), Nanook of the North, Fritz Lang's haunting Destiny, Rene Clair's final silent Les Deux Timides and the mindblowing Douglas Fairbanks extravaganza (and Victor Fleming's directorial debut) When the Clouds Roll By, though of these only Les Deux Timides in a cinema with live musical accompaniment.  If I could see only one of them again today (and I'm so grateful that this is not so) it would be Nanook. Though I'm excited to finally see the Lubitsch, Lang and Fleming on the Castro screen with an audience, I remember them all (and it's been quite a while, especially for Destiny) as films with incredible scenes rather than as incredible films from start to finish. Nanook is a more consistent, coherent work despite its controversial aspects.

Despite being the most famous of today's films, it also seems the least likely candidate to screen again in a Frisco Bay venue any time soon. I could picture When the Clouds Roll By appearing at the Stanford Theatre, for instance (Victor Fleming seems pretty popular there; his most famous film Gone With the Wind screens July 1-3 to celebrate Olivia de Havilland's 100th birthday). And it's been long enough since the last Lubitsch, Lang, and especially Clair retrospectives at BAMPFA that I wouldn't be so surprised to see their films show up there (though I wouldn't count on it either). Nanook of the North could appear as well, but since it's screening SFSFF as a BAMPFA co-presentation I rather doubt it would be soon.

Probably the most likely venue to show any of these films again is the most consistent silent film venue around: the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum's Edison Theatre, the same room where Charlie Chaplin watched movies over 101 years ago. Next weekend the Edison will play host to two days and one night full of Chaplin film screenings as well as a Chaplin look-alike contest on Sunday in honor of the annual Niles, CA Charlie Chaplin Days. The following weekend Chaplin's The Vagabond opens a four-film program of comedy shorts also including a Charley Chase film, a Laurel & Hardy, and Buster Keaton's Cops (in case you missed it at SFSFF yesterday), all in 16mm with live piano accompaniment from Judith Rosenberg. And the final weekend of June is given over to the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, whose line-up seems especially strong this time around, with an opening night showing of my favorite early Cecil B. DeMille drama The Golden Chance (RIP Bob Birchard), a Saturday evening show including this year's SFSFF MVP Wallace Beery in Behind the Front, and a Gish-filled Sunday afternoon with Dorothy in Nell Gwyn followed by her better-remembered sister Lillian in the excellent Victor Seastrom adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. Not to mention a plethora of one-and two-reelers shot in Niles and/or other Essanay locations, including the 2015 throwback Broncho Billy and the Bandit's Secret, which was shot in the area by a modern crew using vintage equipment. Diana Serra Carey (the former silent-era child star Baby Peggy) is among the cast members.

But I suspect Niles is not likely to show Nanook of the North in the near future, if only because it just screened there this past February and repeats of that sort are rare for this venue.

HOW: Nanook of the North screens via a 35mm print, with live musical accompaniment from the Matti Bye Ensemble.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Balloonatic (1923)

Screen capture from Kino DVD
WHO: Buster Keaton co-wrote, co-directed and stars in this alongside Phyllis Haver, perhaps the biggest female star he ever played opposite, at least in the silent era. Haver is perhaps best known for playing Roxie Hart in the 1927 silent Chicago, but she worked with many top directors such as John Ford (in 3 Bad Men), Raoul Walsh (What Price Glory), Howard Hawks (Fig Leaves) and D.W. Griffith (The Battle of the Sexes) but retired very shortly after talkies took over in Hollywood.

WHAT: Keaton's penultimate short before making the switch to feature films later in 1923 (tentatively at first, with The Three Ages, which could easily have been broken into short films had it flopped as a feature). He'd revert back into the short film world in the mid-1930s, well into the talkie era.

Without giving away any of the film's gags, it's fair to say that The Balloonatic is not one of Keaton's most inventive films story-wise, but it still features many very wonderful and hilarious sequences, including some of his most physical work to that point in his career. You really get a sense of Keaton battling the elements (quite literally, as he takes on air, water, fire and even earth, in approximately that order).

WHERE/WHEN: Screens this morning at the Castro Theatre, on a San Francisco Silent Film Festival program beginning at 10AM.

WHY: The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has been gradually working its way through showing all of Buster Keaton's silent films. By my count they've shown the following features over the years: Steamboat Bill, Jr. in 2000, Go West in 2003, Our Hospitality at the February 2009 Winter event, Sherlock, Jr. at the December 2009 Winter event, The Cameraman in 2012, The Navigator in 2014, and The General at the 2014 Silent Autumn event. Which leaves only six more of his eligible features unscreened by the organization (for the record: The Saphead, Three Ages, Seven Chances, Battling Butler, College and Spite Marriage) But then there are the shorts. I believe SFSFF has shown The Cook (in which he's the featured player to Roscoe Arbuckle's star), The Goat, The Love Nest, One Week, The Scarecrow, The Playhouse, and The Blacksmith. Today Cops and The Balloonatic add to that list, leaving another eleven shorts in which he stars, and thirteen in which he features with Arbuckle. At this rate, it'll take the 21-year-old festival at least another 21 years to come close to covering Keaton's entire pre-talkie filmography. It'll be quite a while before they'll have to start scraping the bottom of the barrel, or resorting to repeat showings. Cops is one of my very favorite of his shorts, and The Balloonatic is excellent as well.

They screen this morning along with The Battle of the Century, a Laurel and Hardy short that has not been seen in its complete for in decades. It's no coincidence that pianist Jon Mirsalis makes his long-delayed return to SFSFF playing the accompaniment for this program, as he's the one who found the long-missing reel 2 in a private collector's stash and brought it to public light for the first time (although a very small portion of the film still remains missing- so check your attic!) Also on the program: the delightful/disturbing (can't decide which) French short The Dancing Pig.

Also screening SFSFF today are Axel Lindblom & Alf Sjöberg's The Strongest and Anthony Asquith's debut Shooting Stars, neither of which I know much of anything about, Black American director Oscar Micheaux's earliest surviving film Within Our Gates, Rene Clair's most famous (but not my personal favorite) silent film The Italian Straw Hat, and finally The Last Warning. This, Paul Leni's final film before his untimely death from an infected tooth in 1929, was the 2016 SFSFF film I was most excited to see programmed when the schedule was initially announced, simply because it was one of the few films that I'd heard of but never seen before. After yesterday's disappointingly corporate-boilerplate-heavy Amazing Tales From the Archives presentation from the Universal team involved in its digital restoration, I'm actually slightly less interested in seeing it tonight than I was before. But I probably will anyway, and am thankful that the other Amazing Tales presentations were strong enough that it was still well worth running out the door early for. The Last Warning will have to be pretty amazing to match last night's late-show screening Behind the Door, perhaps the only silent film that ever made me think of Quentin Tarantino and Abel Ferrara by the end.

HOW: Both the Keaton shorts, the Battle of the Century and the Dancing Pig are expected to screen digitally, with live piano accompaniment from Jon Mirsalis.

Friday, June 3, 2016

That Night's Wife (1930)

Screen shot from Eclipse DVD
WHO: The great Yasujiro Ozu directed this. It's my personal favorite of his pre-1932 work, or should I say, the half of his output from this period that still survives in full or in part. So much of Japanese cinema history of this era is lost to us.

WHAT: When I last saw this on the big screen (at the Pacific Film Archive) I found it so compelling it made my list of best repertory screenings of 2011. But I'll all the more excited to revisit the film after reading Imogen Sara Smith's marvelous essay on the film in the newly-published San Francisco Silent Film Festival program guide. Here's a brief excerpt:
There has been a long-running debate about whether Ozu was essentially a formalist, an experimental filmmaker, as Bordwell argues, or whether, as Donald Richie contends, he was primarily interested in a singular narrative theme, the dissolution of the family. That Night's Wife shows how these two impulses were integrated as one: to tell a story through purely cinematic means. 
WHERE/WHEN: Screens 3PM today only at the Castro, as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

WHY: Thanks to David Hudson for including me in his essential Keyframe Daily round-up of articles about this year's SFSFF. Read all the articles linked there, and listen to Andrea Chase's excellent podcast interview with Anita Monga, and you'll get a pretty complete picture of this festival weekend.

Today is perhaps the day I'm most excited about overall, with the Amazing Tales From the Archives program, two Bay Area-shot features (A Woman of the World was shot in Pleasanton and Mothers of Men was made in Santa Cruz, Berkeley and Sacramento- thanks to Michael Hawley for alerting me to this website highlighting the locations where it was films), and the newly-restored submarine thriller Behind the Door, starring Wallace Beery, who stole the show from Louise Brooks last night in Beggars of Life. I've never seen any of these before. I have seen E. A. Dupont's Variety but only via a very poor VHS transfer, and am excited to watch it on the Castro screen with a 14-piece orchestral accompaniment.

HOW: Carl Martin of the Film on Film Foundation has published a detailed report on all the 35mm presentations at this year's SFSFF, and That Night's Wife is among these. It will screen with live piano accompaniment by Maud Nelissen, who is making her SFSFF debut with this presentation. She is actually the first woman to perform a SFSFF musical accompaniment on her own, unless you count Judith Roseberg's performances for Champagne and Easy Virtue at the festival-produced Hitchcock 9 program three years ago.