Broncho Billy and Other Classics

I spent Saturday in Niles at the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival. Lots of fun, good people, and great movies. And some strange ones. One of the strangest: A five-minute short in the Flaming Youth series called “Why Girls Walk Home.” Imagine the sort of sexploitation film where people (usually women) strip at the least provocation while the camera caresses them. Now imagine that they strip only to their very modest underwear.

But the real surprise was The Valley of the Giants. This story of good loggers vs. evil loggers is simple, lurid, yet well-done melodrama, and highly out-of-date by today’s more environmentally-enlightened standards. (Someone must have liked it, though. It was filmed in 1919, 1927–the version I saw–and 1938.) But the action sequences are as thrilling and suspenseful as any you’re likely to see. The location photography, shot near Eureka before that area was, well, ruined by loggers, makes The Valley of the Giants terrific eye candy.

If you like to watch classic movies on the big screen, this is your summer. New schedules for the Castro, Stanford, and Pacific Film Archive overflow with great old movies properly presented. Speaking of presentation, the Castro and the Stanford are by far the best venues for old movies in the area. Their large screens do justice to pictures made before filmmakers took TV into account, they have Wurlitzer pipe organs for silents, and they can handle magnetic stereo, dual-system 3D, and other out-of-date but still wonderful technologies.

The Stanford, being the only theater in the Bay Area that specializes exclusively in classics, boasts the largest selection. It’s got the original Around the World in 80 Dayss, The Adventures of Robin Hood, several of Hitchcock’s best, High Noon, and Bringing Up Baby. The silents, all with organ accompaniment, include Safety Last and Phantom of the Opera

The Castro’s July schedule is light on classics (although it has the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and a couple of others). But in August, the Castro hosts its second (hopefully annual) 70mm series. The line-up looks even better than last year’s. More details when that one is closer.

The PFA’s more esoteric choices include Janet Gaynorr and Frank Borzage retrospectives. For more international fare, directors Vittorio De Seta and Kenji Mizoguchi Winsor McCay.

Finally, I don’t know if my recent diatribe on theaters showing classics on DVD inspired the title, but the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts named its Thursdays-in-July horror series “Too Scary For DVD: Neglected Horror On 35mmmm.”

But what’s worth seeing this week? Read on.

Recommended: V For Vendetta, Red Vic, Friday through Monday. Stunningly subversive for a big-budget Hollywood explosion movie, V For Vendetta celebrates rebellion against an oppressive, ultra-Christian government that feeds on hatred of Muslims and homosexuals. It works as an escapist fantasy action flick and as a call to arms, but when its hero crosses the line (and he does), it forces you to wonder just what is justified in the fight against tyranny.

Noteworthy: Days of Heaven, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30 and Sunday, 5:30. I was blown away by this movie when it first opened–Nestor Almendros’ atmospheric cinematography turned the simple story of lovers posing as siblings into something approaching a masterpiece. But that was nearly 30 years ago and I don’t know if I would have the same reaction today. Besides, back then, the spectacular photography was enhanced by 70mm presentation. The PFA will be showing it in 35mm, but at least it will be a new print.

Recommended: Tsotsi, Red Vic, Wednesday and Thursday. Tsotsi is so good it’s difficult to watch. Writer/director Gavin Hood asks for no sympathy for the violent young thug at the film’s center (Presley Chweneyagae), even as he shows you the dire poverty that created this scary young man. Early in the film, the title character highjacks a car, shooting a woman in the stomach. Then he discovers a baby in the back seat. The thug has no idea what to do, so he finds himself caring for the child, and he slowly begins to soften. This is a tense, scary, vicious, yet ultimately beautiful film about humanity and redemption.

Films Silent or Jewish

What? More festivals? Two words: Silents and Jews.

The Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival starts tonight (Friday) at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont. Of the two weekend-long silent film festivals that grace the Bay Area every summer, Broncho Billy is the smaller, friendlier, small-town affair. The prints are 16mm, the live accompaniment is by piano, and there are always people worth talking to between the shows. Among the scheduled programs are a presentation on stunts and special effects in silent westerns (with a screening of William S. Hart’s Tumbleweeds,) a collection of Harold Lloyd shorts, and the John Barrymore swashbuckler The Beloved Rogue.

Because of the size of the auditorium, sell-outs are a definite danger.

When it’s over, silent film fans will then have a scant three weeks to move northwest (make that north by northwest) to San Francisco, where the Castro will host the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. A more upscale (and pricier) event, this one uses almost exclusively 35mm prints, with some movies accompanied by pipe organ, others piano, and a couple by ensembles. And what the Castro lacks in small-town charm it makes up for in big-city glamour. Highlights include a recently-discovered John Ford western, a Soviet comedy, Laurel and Hardy shorts, G.W. Pabst’s amazing and sexy Pandora’s Box, and King Vidor’s wonderful satire of Hollywood itself, Show People (which, among other virtues, proves that Marion Davies had talents beyond what she could do for William Randolph Hearst’s libido).

It’s worth noting that the festival’s opening night feature, Seventh Heaven, is playing at the Pacific Film Archive just week later. Although lacking dialog and essentially a silent film, Seventh Heaven was one of the first movies released with a soundtrack—at least when it showed in the few theaters that were wired for sound. Clark Wilson will accompany Seventh Heaven at the Silent Film Festival on the Castro’s Wurlitzer pipe organ; it will play with the recorded, 1927 score at the PFA.

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival opens at the Castro just four days after the Silent Festival closes. It runs there for eight days, then moves to three other Bay Area venues for another ten. Altogether, it’s showing 51 films, including 26 that haven’t yet premiered in the Bay Area. I’ve seen one of those, the opening night selection Four Weeks in June, at a press screening. Think of this Swedish film as Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont with fully-developed human beings.

Other movies that look promising include Live and Become, about an Ethiopian in Israel, and a couple of broad comedies:  Roots (not to be confused with the miniseries) and Local Call. Documentaries include Forgiving Dr. Mengele, Jews of Iran, and Blues by the Beach, about a Tel Aviv club attacked by a suicide bomber. I hope to see some of these before the festival opens; if I do, I’ll be sure to tell you about them.

But first, let me tell you about what’s playing this week.

Recommended: Army of Shadows, Balboa and Rafael, opens Friday. Resistance is a dirty and almost inevitably deadly job, but in Nazi-occupied France, someone had to do it. Jean-Pierre Melville’s dark adventure from 1969, newly restored, finally gets an American release. The story is occasionally difficult to follow if you don’t know the history (or the geography), but the rewards are well worth the effort. The suspense set pieces, including a night-time novice parachute jump and a rescue attempt by ambulance, are nerve-wracking, but not nearly so much as the protagonists’ constant moral dilemmas.

Recommended, with Reservations:  Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, Elmwood, opens Friday; and continuing at the Rafael. When a British film starring an aging and respected thespian has neither laughs nor explosions, it is, by definition, a serious work of art. Except when, as in this tale of bonding between an old lady and a young man, it is neither deeply serious nor especially artful. On the plus side, the performances are excellent and the pretending-to-be-someone-you’re-not story doesn’t move to the obvious conclusion. On the minus, the main characters are too good to be true and everyone else is a caricature.

Recommended, with Reservations: The Beloved Rogue, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Sunday, 4:00. Douglas Fairbanks wasn’t the only silent swashbuckling hero. John Barrymore also donned tights to fight evil and defend a woman’s honor. In The Beloved Rogue he plays a drinker and womanizer (talk about typecasting) who must save his beloved France from treachery. The ending isn’t as rousing as it should be—we’re robbed of the big fight—but Barrymore is fun to watch as a hero far less virtuous than Fairbanks. The Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival’s closing presentation, with piano accompaniment by Jon Mirsalis.

Noteworthy: 48 Hour Film Project, Roxie, Tuesday through Thursday. It takes Hollywood years to make a movie (or even just get a script approved). But in this local competition, part of a nationwide contest, filmmakers will be given a genre, character, prop, line of dialogue, and two days to write, shoot, and edit their film. Of course, Cinemasports does basically the same thing, giving contestants only 10 hours.

Political Documentaries

Rabid right-wingers own cable news and talk radio, but we leftists sure dominate the feature-length documentary. I mean, when was the last time the Roxie showed an 80-minute video praising Ann Coulter?

But do these documentaries serve an actual purpose? Anyone surfing through a television or radio dial can hit upon Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh, but going out to a movie or renting a DVD are an intentional acts. No one is likely to see one of these movies unless they’re already inclined to agree with it.

Not that preaching to the choir is a totally useless endeavor. These documentaries rally the troops, and give them ammunition in the form of facts that people can use in arguments.

Or do they? Movies aren’t really the best way to present or absorb information. A 90-minute documentary film will tell you less than a long article you can read in a fraction of that time. And the article can highlight the most important statistics in a graphic that you can easily reference later.

But that article won’t carry a film’s emotional wallop. A movie can make you identify with the victims of injustice, recoil at the gruesomeness of violence, and exult when the little guy wins. It’s these emotions that rally the troops and, hopefully, convert a few new ones.

Which returns us to the other issue: Do people see these movies who aren’t already inclined to agree with them? A few, perhaps, but only if they have an open mind on the issue and the documentary is getting a lot of positive buzz. I’m skeptical that any political documentary can change a significant number of minds, but if it isn’t really excellent, if it doesn’t grab you emotionally, and if it isn’t getting people talking, it doesn’t stand a chance.

An Inconvenient Truth is one such excellent exception. If Al Gore had been this charming and funny in the 2000 election, the world would be a better place. Basically a concert film centering on a multimedia slideshow, An Inconvenient Truth explains the science of global warming and the consequences of not addressing the issue in a manner so clear, concise, and entertaining that it can enthrall a ten-year-old (and I know because I saw it with one). If it’s possible for a movie to have a major, positive effect on the human race, this is the one, in no small part because of Gore’s name value.

On the other hand, Dot Reidelbach’s Banking On Heaven is unlikely to do much for its cause. It’s just not good enough to help spread the word about a very bad situation.

For more on Banking On Heaven, and a few other movies playing around down, read on.

Recommended: Gods and Monsters, Balboa, Friday. James Whale was a World War I veteran, a relatively (for his time) open homosexual, and the director of some of the greatest horror films ever made. He committed suicide in 1957 at the age of 68. Gods and Monsters examines this fascinating man with a fictional retelling of his final days. Ian McKellen plays Whale as a charming and cultured seducer frustrated by the degenerative disease that’s destroying his mind. A pre-stardom Brendan Fraser matches him as the straight hunk whom Whale fails to seduce but succeeds in befriending. As part of its Boris Karloff series, the Balboa is showing Gods and Monsters on a double bill with Targets.

Not Recommended: Banking On Heaven, Roxie, opens Friday. I really wanted to like Dot Reidelbach’s exposé of an extremely creepy and fascistic ultra-orthodox Mormon cult. It shines a light on some truly horrible stuff going down right here in the U.S. of A., including thought control, child abandonment, and child rape. But I can’t recommend it. It’s only occasionally emotionally involving and it skips over some important facts. For instance, it only briefly mentions that the cult’s leader is now a wanted fugitive–a seemingly important fact. You’d probably learn more about the issue by Googling warren jeffs fundamentalist latter day saints.

Recommended, with Reservations: Frankenstein (1931), Balboa, Saturday. Dr. Frankenstein did more than create a monster. He turned James Whale into a top director and Boris Karloff into a major star (no mean feat since Karloff neither spoke in the film nor received screen credit). Several individual scenes are masterpieces of mood, horror, and crossed sympathies, but there’s so little story that the movie feels like a warm-up for the infinitely superior sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, which, happily, is the second half of this Balboa Boris Karloff double bill.

Recommended: The Bride of Frankenstein, Balboa, Saturday. You spend more time scared for the monster than of it in James Whales’ masterpiece. Boris Karloff plays him as a child in a too-large body, the ultimate outcast torn between his need for love and his anger at the society that’s rejected him. If the blind hermit sequence doesn’t bring tears, you’re either dead, too cynical, or have seen Young Frankenstein’s parody of this scene once too often. With Colin Clive as the not-so-good doctor, Ernest Thesiger as a delightfully over-the-top even madder scientist, and Elsa Lanchester as both Mary Shelley and the monster’s mate (although, technically speaking, Valerie Hobson is the Bride of Frankenstein). One of the rare sequels better than the original, and you can see them together in this Balboa Boris Karloff double bill.

Recommended, with Reservations: The Black Cat, Balboa, Wednesday. Not all Universal horror films were carefully crafted by artists like James Whale. Low-budget auteur Edgar G. Ulmer threw this quickie together for very little money, and it looks it. But this silly story of revenge, lost honeymooners, a very modern spooky castle, and fear of cats offers a good share of laughs, some of them intentional. But why did Universal pick a cheapie like this for the first pairing of its two biggest horror stars–Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi? On a Balboa Boris Karloff triple bill with The Invisible Ray and Night World.

Movies As They Were Meant to be Seen?

“What did you think of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet?”

“Oh, come on! You can’t really call that Hamlet, can you? Hamlet was meant to be seen live, not canned. And why cast Kate Winslet and Julie Christie when Ophelia and Gertrude are supposed to be played by boys? And what’s Branagh doing there? If it ain’t Richard Burbage, it ain’t Hamlet!”

Pretty silly argument, isn’t it? And yet, we cinephiles say things like that all the time. We want a movie to look and sound exactly as it looked and sounded on opening night (unless, of course, it was cut by the studio before the premiere; then we want it restored to the director’s original intent).

But what we want is an impossible goal. Part of the problem is technical. As movie technology changes, old looks become more difficult to recreate. Eastmancolor doesn’t look like IB Technicolor. Acetate doesn’t look like nitrate. Digital stereo doesn’t sound like magnetic.

There’s no technical reason why Branagh couldn’t cast Leonardo DiCaprio as Ophelia, but it wouldn’t have worked. What was normal for Shakespeare’s audiences would seem distractingly bizarre today. So the problem isn’t just technical; it’s cultural.

Hamlet is a masterpiece because it transcends all that. Modern productions, whether for stage or screen, bear little resemblance to opening night at the Globe. The play is re-imagined and reinterpreted with each production, and that only makes Hamlet greater.

Films don’t get re-imagined (except for remakes and Star Wars movies), but they can’t help changing with time. We watch Citizen Kane and think of the later, fatter Orson Welles. Animal Crackers (which, like Hamlet, was originally a stage play written for a very specific cast) is still very funny, but its clumsy staging and photography look crude if you’re not awed by the amazing miracle of talking pictures. When was the last time you watched 2001: A Space Odyssey and marveled at both the wonders of the near future and the huge, deeply-curved Cinerama screen?

The great films will last forever, even if the next generation of cinephiles watches them (heaven forbid) on an iPod. Fortunately, this week you can still catch some good ones in theaters.

Recommended, with Reservations: Art School Confidential, 4Star, Elmwood, and Parkway,opening Friday. Calling this Terry Zwigoff’s worst film is like praising it with a faint damn. A comedy/drama/murder mystery/satire, Art School Confidential isn’t exactly a bad film; it’s just not a particularly good one. Max Minghella stars as an art school freshman who wants to be the next Picasso. But the overstuffed plot forces him to contend with artistic pretension, self-absorbed teachers, strange roommates, a drunken failure, a beautiful model, his own virginity, and a serial killer. (Minghella must also contend with not really being star material.) We’re told early on that the students are all stereotypes, but that doesn’t help the fact that they are, in fact, all stereotypes. Art School Confidential has its share of funny moments, and a couple of clever plot twists, but it isn’t a must-see movie by a long shot.

Recommended: United 93, 4Star, opens Friday. We can enjoy the vicarious thrill of movie theater fear because glamorous-but-familiar faces, Hollywood sheen, witty dialog, and genre conventions all conspire to remind us that it’s only a movie, and that it will end in triumph and redemption. Paul Greengrass’ harrowing 911 retelling gives us no such reassurance. There is no glamour in this cast of unknowns. The grainy, up-close, handheld camerawork doesn’t glow. No one is especially witty. And we know going in that something very close to this really happened and that no one came out of it alive. The result is the most nerve-wracking experience I’ve ever had in a movie theater. It isn’t fun, but it leaves you with greater appreciation of what those people went through.

Recommended: Jaws, Albert Park, San Rafael, Saturday, 8:00. Steven Spielberg thought this out-of-control production would end his still-new career. Instead, it put him on the top of the Hollywood pyramid. And with good reason. By combining an intelligent story (lifted by novelist Peter Benchley from Henrik Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People), brilliant editing, and a handful of effective shocks, Jaws scares the living eyeballs out of you. Unfortunately, this will be a DVD presentation.

Recommended: Brokeback Mountain, Castro, Monday through Wednesday. Ang Lee’s gay love story may one day seem as dated as Kramer vs. Kramer and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but today it looks like a masterpiece. Heath Ledger turns the stereotype of the strong, silent cowboy on its head, playing a man so beaten down and closed off from the world that every word is a struggle. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Williams are also brilliant as his lover and wife. And, of course, screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, working from a short story by E. Annie Proulx, deserve considerable credit. The Castro is the perfect theater for this movie, not only because of its location, but also because the giant screen will do justice to the magnificent photography.

Adulation by the Bay

I don’t know if the pen is mightier than the sword, but I’ve got a book on my desk that could make a pretty lethal club. It’s called Cinema by the Bay, by Sheerly Avni, and it’s a coffee table book for very sturdy coffee tables. The sucker is heavy.

As the first title with the new George Lucas Books imprint, Cinema by the Bay looks at film directors and movie studios that have made their home in the Bay Area–Coppola, Saul Zaentz, Pixar, and Mr. Lucas, himself. The book limits itself to those who made their mark here after 1970. Only Michael Sragow’s introduction bothers with earlier artists who worked in or near San Francisco–obscure names like Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock.

The heavy weight comes from the large format, hard cover, and thick, glossy pages. This is book as presentation; a beautiful way to show off a large collection of photographs, all lovingly reproduced.

But Avni’s text is embarrassingly lightweight. As one would expect from a George Lucas book, it has nothing but praise for the creator of Jar Jar Binks. She blames THX 1138’s commercial failure on “the Hollywood moneymen [who] threw their hands up at the future director of the blockbuster Star Wars series,” without considering that to many people’s minds, then and now, her boss’ first film is an alienating bore. Howard the Duck is scarcely mentioned.

Not that the book is dedicated to the deification of George Lucas. Every filmmaker profiled is a genius, and every Bay Area studio a patron of the arts that somehow manages to turn a profit.

In other words, this is a great book to look at, but a disappointment to read.

Most of the following films were not made in the Bay Area, but they are being shown here this coming week. None are disappointments.

Recommended: V For Vendetta, Elmwood, ongoing. Stunningly subversive for a big-budget Hollywood explosion movie, V For Vendetta celebrates rebellion against an oppressive, ultra-Christian government that feeds on hatred of Muslims and homosexuals. It works as an escapist fantasy action flick and as a call to arms, but when its hero crosses the line (and he does), it forces you to wonder just what is justified in the fight against tyranny.

Recommended: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Castro, opens Friday for a one-week engagement. Steven Spielberg directed it, and the bad guys are Nazis, but it’s as far from Schindler’s List as a great movie can get. What else can I say? If you object to mindless, escapist action flicks on principle, you won’t see it anyway. If you don’t, you already know it’s wonderful. The Castro promises a new 35mm print.

Recommended, with Reservations: Frankenstein(1931), Balboa, Saturday. Dr. Frankenstein did more than create a monster. He turned James Whale into a top director and Boris Karloff into a major star (no mean feat since Karloff neither spoke in the film nor received screen credit). Several individual scenes are masterpieces of mood, horror, and crossed sympathies, but there’s so little story that the movie feels like a warm-up for the infinitely superior sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. As part of its Boris Karloffseries, the Balboa will screen Frankenstein on a double-bill with The Black Room.

Recommended: Bride of Frankenstein, Balboa, Sunday. You spend more time scared for the monster than of it in James Whales’ masterpiece. Boris Karloff plays him as a child in a too-large body, the ultimate outcast torn between his need for love and his anger at the society that’s rejected him. If the blind hermit sequence doesn’t bring tears, you’re either dead, too cynical, or have seen Young Frankenstein’s parody of this scene once too often. With Colin Clive as the not-so-good doctor, Ernest Thesiger in a delightfully over-the-top performance as an even madder scientist, and Elsa Lanchester as both Mary Shelley and the monster’s mate (technically speaking, Valerie Hobson is the real Bride of Frankenstein). On a double-bill with The Old Dark House as part of the Balboa’s Boris Karloffseries.

Recommended: Scarface (1932), Balboa, Monday. When we think of pre-code gangster movies, we think of Warner Brothers. But independent producer Howard Hughes made the best of them–or at least he paid writer Ben Hecht and director Howard Hawks to make it. Paul Muni asks for no sympathy, but he’s always watchable as a young thug working his way up, then down, the ladder of criminal success. Other standouts include George Raft as his sidekick and Ann Dvorak as the sister he loves a little too much. Scarface is an odd choice for a Boris Karloff series, as Karloff has just a bit part, but that’s how the Balboa is showing it, on a double-bill with Graft.

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