Sunday, January 3, 2010
2009 was another incredible year for seeing old movies in the Bay Area. I had the pleasure of watching 70 golden "classics" on our local screens, which represents around 20 percent of what was actually available to see. Next year I promise to apply myself. Meanwhile, here are ten or so of my favorites from the past year.
Skidoo (Pacific Film Archive (PFA), "Otto Preminger: Anatomy of a Movie")
Two weeks after seeing this 1968 rarity, I remain traumatized by the memory of Carol Channing seducing Frankie Avalon with a down-to-the-bra-and-panties, psychedelic rock striptease. That, and Jackie Gleason LSD-tripping in an Alcatraz jail cell with Groucho Marx's head perched atop a floating screw. The Preminger estate almost never allows this jaw-dropper to be screened, so weep if you missed it. Added bonus: a woman who lived in the house where much of the movie was shot regaled the PFA audience with tales of its filming (she was 14 at the time). Channing was a sweetheart, Gleason was a mean crank and Avalon combed through her record collection looking for his own stuff. Another 2009 ultra-rare mind-blower at the PFA: Frank Zappa's 200 Motels ("Eccentric Cinema: Overlooked Oddities and Ecstasies").
Ace in the Hole/Cry of the Hunted (Castro Theater, Nor City double-bill)
Billy Wilder followed Sunset Boulevard with this searing 1951 satire of human greed and monomania, starring Kirk Douglas as a disgraced big-city reporter who hits paydirt when an Indian cliff dwelling collapses and traps an old man. With Jan Sterling firing off one of the campiest lines in film history: "I don't go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons." In 1953's Cry, an escaped convict (an impossibly handsome Vittorio Gassman, then married to Shelley Winters) is chased through the Louisiana swamps by cops Barry Sullivan and William Conrad. Fortunately for us, Gassman plunges into the swampwater at least once a reel and emerges sopping wet with clothes a-clinging. In between swamp dips, he has two homoerotic fist fights with Sullivan which end in hilariously post-coital cigarette-smoking.
The Lost World (Castro Theater, SF International Film Festival)
I rarely attend revival screenings at this festival (although the decision to skip Gena Rowlands introducing A Woman Under the Influence at this year's fest was an agonizing one). When I do, it's always for programmer Sean Uyehara's annual pairing of an iconic silent film with a newly composed rock score. This year's unholy hook-up was 1925 dinosaur epic The Lost World and the impossible-to-categorize sounds of Dengue Fever. At the point in the movie where the volcano was exploding and the jungle was on fire and the dinosaurs were stampeding and Dengue Fever was kicking out its raucous jams, I half expected the Castro's domed ceiling to lift off into the night sky. Unforgettable.
Z (Castro Theater, one-week revival)
I hadn't seen Costa-Gavras' acclaimed 1969 political thriller since its initial theatrical release, when I was too young to appreciate or understand it. I even remember being bored by it. This time I walked out thinking, "now THIS is fucking CINEMA!" As Pauline Kael wrote back in the day, "Remember when the movie ads used to say, "It will knock you out of your seat"? Well, Z damn near does." Almost every other film I saw this year seemed anemic by comparison.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (SFMOMA's two-month Chantal Akerman retrospective)
For me, this was 2009's biggest catch-up-with-the-canon screening. Thank goodness I'll never again have to endure anyone incredulously asking, "You mean to say you've NEVER seen Jeanne Dielman?!?" Uh yes, I have, and it exceeded all expectations. Not that the screening itself was flawless. Somehow the second reel of the 35mm print got lost in transit and had to be substituted with 16mm. Also, Akerman cancelled her highly anticipated personal appearance with the film just days before. But she was hardly missed after last-minute substitute, film critic and Akerman's personal friend B. Ruby Rich finished delivering what was the best film introduction I heard in all 2009. During the series I also caught the follow-up to Dielman, 1976's Je, tu, il, elle and Akerman's 1986 shopping-mall musical, Golden Eighties.
Daguerréotypes (PFA, "Agnès Varda: Cinécriture")
In 1975 Varda made this delightful documentary on the denizens of Rue Daguerre, the Parisian street where she's lived for decades. Having just given birth, she needed to stick close to home and ventured only as far as the camera's extension cord would allow her. Leave it to Varda to turn stricture into strength. Opening the program was Du côté de la côte, a wry 24-minute, Vardian version of a tourist board promotional film (for the Côte d'Azur). As part of the retrospective I also got my first look at her debut film, 1955's La Pointe-Courte and the Bay Area premiere of her most recent masterpiece, The Beaches of Agnès, as well as repeat viewings of the classic Cleo from 5 to 7 and her homage to husband Jacques Demy, Jacquot de Nantes.
Hollywood Speaks German (Castro Theater, Berlin & Beyond Special Presentation)
When sound film arrived in Hollywood, so did the problem of how to export its product abroad. During the silent era, movies were simply given new intertitles. Dubbing was still an insurmountable technological challenge in the early sound era, so films were shot in several languages. This illuminating program featured clips from 14 German-language Hollywood films from 1930-31 (including Anna Christie and The Lauren & Hardy Murder Case) and was hosted by Film Museum Munich Director Stefan Droessler. After a Q&A with film historian Russell Merritt, the festival screened the rare English-language version of Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel.
Fear and Desire/The Delinquents (Roxie Theater, Film on Film Foundation double bill)
For anyone who isn't familiar with the Film on Film Foundation, they maintain an indispensable film calendar which lists non-digital Bay Area revival/repertory/festival screenings. I can't plan my film festivals until I've consulted them. They also host occasional screenings such a this one, a rare pairing of Stanley Kubrick's first film (the long-considered-lost 1953 war allegory Fear and Desire) and Robert Altman's 1957 juvenile delinquent melodrama The Delinquents (starring a hunky pre-Billy Jack Tom Laughlin). It was gratifying to see a packed Roxie house for this. More recently, FOFF screened Otto Preminger's revelatory 1963 The Cardinal at the PFA.
So's Your Old Man (Castro Theater, SF Silent Film Festival)
There were so many terrific programs at this year's SF Silent Film Festival (and its two 'Winter Events'), I was hard-pressed to single out just one. This hilarious W.C. Fields comedy was the festival's 2009 "Director's Pick," having been chosen and then introduced by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Ghost World) and his pal Daniel Clowes (Art School Confidential). I was dubious about how funny Fields might be without that lilting sneer of a voice, but boy, was he! Other 2009 SFSFF highlights included my first-ever viewing of F.W. Murnau's iconic Sunrise, Lillian Gish going nuts from the howl of The Wind, Lupe Velez' transformed cabaret dancer in Lady of the Pavements and the haunted house antics of The Cat and the Canary.
It Always Rains on Sunday/Brighton Rock (Castro Theater, Rialto Best of British Noir series double bill)
September saw British film noir aficionados racing between the Castro and the PFA as they ran similarly themed programs (the PFA calling its series "Tea and Larceny: Classic British Crime Films.") In It Always Rains, housewife Googie Withers has an ex-lover who just escaped prison stashed in her bedroom. Brighton Rock stars the salty Hermione Baddeley as an aging floozy determined to expose a murderous young racketeer (a 23-year-old Richard Attenborough). 2010 will see the release of a Helen Mirren-starring remake.