Projecting Buddha

What’s the sound of one audience clapping?

Starting February 14, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts screens 12 films in a series titled Projecting Buddha. Hosted by the International Buddhist Film Festival, The movies are intended to complement the current YBCA exhibition, The Missing Peace: Artists Consider the Dalai Lama. The series features, according to the press release, “the Dalai Lama, Martin Scorsese, Thich Nhat Hanh, John Giorno, Sakyong Mipham, Noah Levine, Robina Courtin, Bobby Hill.

I’ve seen two of the films. The documentary Chasing Buddha introduces you to Robina Courtin, an Australian-born Buddhist nun now living in the Bay Area (or at least living here when the movie was made). A former hippy and political radical, Courtin spends much of her time these days in prisons, helping condemned criminals find a spiritual path. She’s strong-willed, direct, and uses language that would easily earn this movie an R rating if it was shown commercially. This 52-minute semi-feature plays on Sunday, February 17, 2:00, with the short subject “Satya: A Prayer for the Enemy.

I’ve also seen the King of the Hill episode “Won’t You Pimai Neighbor.” It’s funny, and it’s screening Sunday, February 24, with the short feature Compassion In Exile.

Projecting Buddha runs through March 6, Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons.

Freeway Philharmonic

My wife and I went to the Cerrito last night for a screening of Freeway Philharmonic, a documentary about Bay Area classical musicians who drive all over Northern California to scratch out a living playing in multiple orchestras. Filmmakers Tal Skloot and Steven Baigel profile seven such musicians, although there are many more.

The capacity audience appeared to be mostly musicians and at least one musician’s spouse. That would be me, as my wife plays viola professionally. She seemed to know half the audience, including several of the musicians profiled in the film. In fact, one of Freeway Philharmonic‘s subjects is our daughter’s bassoon teacher.

At 55 minutes, Freeway Philharmonic isn’t quite feature length, but it’s the right length for the story Skloot and Baigel have to tell. We meet the musicians, get to know their lives, their dreams, and their frustrations. Two of them get married, another two–already married–contemplate parenthood. One injures her hand and worries if that will destroy her career. And we come to understand the passion, dedication, and struggle involved in an artistic career.

Good music, too.

Noir City and Other Screenings

Noir City opens Friday night at the Castro and plays through the week (and well into the next one), and that’s worth mentioning on its own, even if there isn’t much there I’ve seen or even heard of. But isn’t that what makes it special?

DOUBLE FEATURE: The Lady Vanishes (1938) & Young and Innocent, Stanford, Friday through Monday. The best (and almost the last) film Alfred Hitchcock made in England before jumping the pond, The Lady Vanishes stands among his best. This is Hitchcock light–starting out as a gentle comedy and slowly building suspense, but never taking itself seriously. Only North by Northwest is more enjoyable. He also made Young and Innocent in England, but he didn’t do near as good a job. It has one fantastic shot, but is otherwise just the Master of Suspense going through the motions.

The Black Pirate, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Douglas Fairbanks’ pirate swashbuckler isn’t the best of his work, but it’s fun. People mainly remember it for one spectacular stunt–Fairbanks sliding down a sail with a knife (it was recreated in the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie)–and the color. This was one of the first features, and the first really big one, shot entirely in two-color Technicolor. As I write this, I have no information about the print, but I do know that Bruce Loeb, rather than the previously-announced Jon Mirsalis, will provide piano accompaniment.

Gun Crazy, Castro, Saturday. It’s been too long since I’ve seen this low-budget thriller, said to be inspired by the story of Bonnie and Clyde. And I mean “too long” in both senses of the term: It’s been so many years I don’t trust my memory enough to give it a recommendation, and I shouldn’t go so long without seeing such a good movie again. The plot concerns two sharpshooters who fall in love and go on a crime spree, despite the man’s abhorrence to turning his gone on any living thing. One of the many films from the 1950s written by the then-blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (original prints didn’t credit him; modern ones do).

Bamako, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:30. Better in parts than as a whole, Bamako mixes interesting vignettes of life in modern Africa with a preachy approach to its subject matter that wears you down. The bizarre concept puts the World Bank on trial, complete with formal court hearings, in a residential courtyard in Bamako, Mali. Around the trial, life goes on, and that life is the best part of the film. But as an attack on global economic policy, it’s more of a treatise than a motion picture, explaining what the problem is rather than showing you or involving you emotionally. Part of the PFA’s African Film Festival.

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival

The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival comes to the Bay Area again in February with screenings at the Pacific Film Archive and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. This is a modest festival: Only nine films (including shorts) presented in 12 screenings. All of the films are documentaries.

So far, I’ve seen one of them, Strange Culture, which was shown last year at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and then received a limited theatrical release. I liked the movie, and gave it a B. Click here for my review.

Other films deal with global warming, Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, and violence in the Congo.

Yesterday’s News

Quite a day. The Academy announces the Oscar nominations, and Heath Ledger dies in what looks like a suicide.

I first saw Ledger in The Patriot and Monster’s Ball. Both performances impressed me, but they left me wondering if I would ever see this young man alive in a final fade-out. I finally did, of course, in Brokeback Mountain; alive, but very sad, standing both literally and figuratively in a closet. I finally saw him in a happy ending with Casanova.

But there was no happy ending for Ledger himself. We still don’t know why.

Should we care more about Ledger than about the many other people who must have died before their time that day–including, I’m sure, others who left young children behind? I suppose not. Yet we do, because we’ve all lost something: the chance to watch a talented young artist mature and improve with age.

And what about the Oscar nominations?

I have yet to see There Will Be Blood, which seems to have momentum behind it. I’ll have to rectify that. I liked the other four Best Picture nominees, although only Juno made my top ten (and topped it). I’m rooting for Juno, but I don’t think it will win. It’s not the sort of movie that does.

On the animation front, I loved both Persepolis and Ratatouille, although I don’t think of Persepolisas a 2007 film because it didn’t open in the Bay Area before 2008. And, of course, I’m hoping No End in Sight makes Best Feature-Length Documentary.

But we’ll have to wait until February 24 to answer the big question: What is an Oscar ceremony like during a writer’s strike?

Everything Good This Week

Dr. Strangelove, Cerrito, Thursday, 9:15. We like to look back at earlier decades as simpler, less fearful times, but Stanley Kubrick’s “nightmare comedy– reminds you just how scary things once were. Thank heaven we no longer have idiots like those running the country! It’s also very funny. A benefit for Theater Engage.

Notorious, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. One of Hitchcock’s best. In order to prove her patriotism, scandal-ridden Ingrid Bergman seduces, beds, and marries Claude Rains’ Nazi industrialist, while true love Cary Grant grimly watches. Sexy, romantic, thought-provoking, and scary enough to shorten your fingernails. On a double bill with The Philadelphia Story, a romantic comedy, also starring Grant, that I haven’t seen in a great many years.

The Magic of Georges Méliès, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 3:00. One could reasonably call this French magician the first artist of the cinema. His “trick” films certainly introduced the concept of what we now call special effects, and they’re amongst the earliest motion pictures to retain their intrinsic value as entertainment (as opposed to mere historical interest). The matinee will screen seven of his shorts, including his best-known movie, “A Trip to the Moon.” Part of the PFA’s ongoing series of Movie Matinees for All Ages.

The Violin, Roxie, Shattuck, ongoing. Francisco Vargas’ film of repression and rebellion opens with a brutal scene of torture and rape conducted by soldiers against their helpless, bound victims. Don’t let the title deceive you; The Violin is not a musical. In telling us the story of an old farmer and violinist (Ángel Tavira) secretly active in rebellion, Vargas denies us the comforts of conventional entertainment. The grainy black-and-white photography and the emphasis on motion and close-ups give The Violin an almost unbearable urgency. We don’t get to revel in the heroes’ victories, and laughter breaks the tension only once in this remarkable film. Click here for my full review.

IndieFest

Another big film festival on the way. IndieFest (AKA, The Tenth Annual San Francisco Independent Film Festival) opens February 7 and plays through the 20th. Venues include the Castro, the Roxie, and the Victoria Theater.

It starts on Thursday the 7th at the Castro (all festivals start on a Thursday night at the Castro…it’s the law) with Shotgun Stories, the story of a modern-day rural family feud, and ends nearly two weeks later with Gus Van Sant’s latest work, Paranoid Park.

Van Sant’s contribution is the only film I’ve heard of, and I’ve yet to see any of them (that is sort of the point). Among the more curious-sounding titles on the schedule are Sexina: Popstar, P.I., Driving To Zigzigland, and Alligator On the Zipper. There’s also an Armenian “screwball” comedy called A Big Story in a Small City. Sounds good.

PFA Weekend

I made it to the Pacific Film Archive twice this weekend. That’s two nights, two series openings, two screenings, three features, two shorts, and two masterpieces (one of them a short).

The Medieval Remake series opened Friday night with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. That’s the feature-length masterpiece of the weekend, and at 205 minutes, it’s enough masterpiece for two great features. Plotless and episodic, Andrei Rublev tells us multiple (mostly ficticious) stories in the life of the title character–a famous 15th-century religious painter. Rublev’s role in these stories varies; sometimes he’s an active participant, other times a passive observer. What he observes is a world of poverty, faith, political and religious conflict, and horrifying, seemingly random violence. People in positions of power maim and kill those without power for little reason or none at all. Basically a religious epic, Rublev seems to question the meaning of faith in a hostile universe while emphasizing its importance.

I couldn’t help wondering how Tarkovsky made such a religious film under Communist rule. It helped, I suspect, that most of the film’s writing and pre-production occurred during Nikita Khrushchev’s relatively lax reign. But it didn’t surprise me to read that the film wasn’t released in the U.S.S.R. until five years after its 1966 completion. According to Wikipedia, however, the censors objected to the film’s graphic violence, not it’s open Christianity.

My one complaint: The print disappointed. It had seen better days, and was considerably scratched at the beginning and end of reels. Worse, the subtitles were poorly printed, making them difficult to read–all but impossible to read when they were against a white background. And this in a Russian film with plenty of snow.

On Saturday night I saw four films that have a lot in common with Andrei Rublev. They were all shot and projected on black and white 35mm film at 24 frames per second. Okay, I lied. The short “Black and Tan” was shot in 35mm, but the PFA presented a 16mm print.

The event was the first night of another PFA series, Cool World: Jazz and the Movies, and the 1929 “Black and Tan”–Duke Ellington’s first film appearance–started it off. This is a strange little two-reeler. Clearly designed as an Ellington vehicle, it’s saddled with a dumb dramatic plot where 17 minutes of music would have been more entertaining. And aside from two comic repo men, the all-black cast avoids the stereotypes so common in Hollywood films of those days.

The other short, “Jammin’ the Blues,” is the other masterpiece of the evening, and the only film in the group I’d seen before. Made in 1944, it purports to show us an actual jam session with Lester Young and other great musicians. It’s clearly staged for the camera with multiple setups and retakes–a jam session recorded, then recreated visually for the camera. But it’s also 10 minutes of great music and visual flare.

There’s nothing so great about Beware, the 1946 B feature (more like a Z feature) that followed the shorts. This one’s a vehicle for band leader Louis Jordan, who was no Ellington or Young, even though he was popular in his day. Made exclusively for African-American audiences (they called these race pictures back then), Beware is a trite and clichéd story badly told, accompanied by songs that seldom rise above pleasant.

The evening’s second feature, Too Late Blues, was a considerable improvement. Made in 1962, this is John Cassavetes’ second film as a director and his only work for a major Hollywood studio. Appropriately enough, it’s about a jazz musician (Bobby Darin in what was touted as his first serious role) who refuses to sell out and go commercial. But Cassavetes suggests that this has more to do with the character’s messed up mind than any truly noble cause.

There’s little here that one would recognize as Cassavetes. For one thing, the characters tend to explain their emotional problems, and each other’s emotional problems, in long and artificial-sounding speeches. That’s common in early-’60s Hollywood serious drama, but Cassavetes knew better.

Recommendations and Warnings From Persia to New York

Persepolis, Rafael, Embarcadero, Shattuck, opens Friday. Can one call a 95-minute, low-budget, animated film an epic? I think this one qualifies. It may also qualify as a masterpiece. It’s certainly an excellent and an important movie. Iranian/French cartoonist Marjane Satrapi based Persepolis on her own autobiographical graphic novels (Vincent Paronnaud shares screenwriting and directing credits). Through the eyes of young Marjane (I’m calling the artist by her last name, the onscreen character by her first), we see Iran go through oppression, revolution, hope, worse oppression, war, and even worse oppression. The story covers the war with Iraq, a late adolescence in Vienna, a return to an Iran now at peace but still under the clergy’s thumb, and a romantic life made difficult by pressures internal and external. If you’re still not convinced, read my full review.

The Violin, Roxie, Shattuck, opens Friday. Francisco Vargas’ film of repression and rebellion opens with a brutal scene of torture and rape conducted by soldiers against their helpless, bound victims. Don’t let the title deceive you; The Violin is not a musical. In telling us the story of an old farmer and violinist (Ángel Tavira) secretly active in rebellion, Vargas denies us the comforts of conventional entertainment. The grainy black-and-white photography and the emphasis on motion and close-ups give The Violin an almost unbearable urgency. We don’t get to revel in the heroes’ victories, and laughter breaks the tension only once in this remarkable film. Click here for my full review.

Neandertal, Castro, Saturday, 5:45. No cavemen here. Ingo Haeb’s sets his coming-of-age drama in the town where the famous pre-human’s bones were first found, and names the movie after the town. You’re free to add whatever evolutionary symbolism you like to this tale of a 17-year-old boy with a horrible skin condition. Most of the film doesn’t concern itself with the disease (although the scenes that do are not for the squeamish), but with young Guido’s growing maturity. Disenchanted with his parents (more than are most teenagers, and with good reason), he moves in with his older brother and begins to idolize one of the brother’s roommates–a young man who’s hardly a fit role model. Haeb sets his film in 1990, yet the recent fall of the Berlin Wall is barely mentioned. The characters have other problems. All around, an excellent film. Part of the Berlin & Beyond Festival.

Runaway Horse, Castro, Sunday, 8:15. Nothing like running into an old friend to ruin your vacation. You can certainly understand why Helmut feels that way. The old college buddy who suddenly turns up at the beach is loud, boisterous, and annoying, and comes adorned with a young, beautiful, and highly distracting girlfriend. Helmut can’t understand why his wife seems taken in with this new couple. But as we get to know Helmut better, the filmmakers show us that the friend isn’t the real problem. Deeply depressed socially, sexually, and emotionally, Helmut needs to be shocked back into life. At times Runaway Horse feels too pat, and the ending–which veers close to magical realism–only satisfies until the credits fade, but this story of four mismatched souls on vacation manages to be funny, heart-warming, intuitive, sexy, scary, suspenseful, and even occasionally wise. Part of the Berlin & Beyond Festival.

RiffTrax Live: Plan 9 From Outer Space, Castro, Thursday, 9:00. Mike Nelson and two other Mystery Science Theater veterans provide live commentary for the Citizen Kane of bad movies. If you enjoy this sort of thing (and I do), it’s hard to imagine this not working. And this time, the Castro is promising an actual 35mm print. Get to the theater early; MST3K fans are the Deadheads of television comedy. Read my report of RiffTrax’s last Bay Area visit.

Special appearance: Charlie Wilson’s War, Balboa, Saturday, 7:00 and 9:05 showings. Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt will be there in person to discuss his work.

Alexander Nevsky, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 2:00. Sergei Eisenstein’s first talkie (after a decade with no complete films) is a big, spectacular patriotic ritual–a call for the Russian people to band together and fight the Teutonic invaders. (Not surprisingly, Stalin banned the film in the days of the Hitler-Stalin pact, and then brought it out again after the Germans did invade.) As spectacle, few movies equal Alexander Nevsky, but there’s something dead on the inside. A film more to be admired than loved.

Who Killed the Electric Car?, Parkway, Sunday, 2:00, free. In the mid-90’s, General Motors released an electric car so wonderful that Chris Paine made this documentary about it. But GM leased these cars rather than selling them, and very few people got their hands on one. Then GM pulled the plug (so to speak) on the entire line, ceasing production and reclaiming all existing cars. Paine turns all of this into an informative, very partisan, yet breezy documentary. Interview subjects include a GM saleswoman turned activist, NIMH battery inventor Stanley Ovshinsky, and movie stars who were among the few people allowed to lease these cars (this may be the only progressive documentary with a positive image of Mel Gibson). Part of the Parkway’s Sunday Salon series.

The Maltese Falcon, Cerrito, Saturday, 6:00, Sunday, 5:00. Dashiell Hammett’s novel had been filmed twice before, but screenwriter and first-time director John Huston did it right with the perfect cast and a screenplay that sticks almost word-for-word to the book. The ultimate Hammett picture, the second-best directorial debut of 1941 (after Citizen Kane), an important precursor to film noir, and perhaps the most entertaining detective movie ever made.

Fashion Victims, Castro, Friday, 8:00. Financial, professional, and personal pressures push fashion salesman Wolfgang Zenker to the edge in Ingo Rasper’s vaguely serious comedy. We can laugh at this man’s self-destruction because he’s such a self-centered jerk, and because our sympathies go towards the people he hurts–primarily his son Karsten (Florian Bartholomäi). The plot has about three too many coincidences, but that’s not enough to destroy the fun. Part of the Berlin & Beyond Festival.

And Along Come Tourists, Castro, Sunday, 6:00. Nothing much really happens in Robert Thalheim’s study of a young German in modern Auschwitz. He arrives to spend a year working there to fulfill his civil service obligation. He forms on odd love/hate friendship with an old Holocaust survivor who never left the camp and is now sort of a living museum exhibit. He sort of falls in love with a local girl who speaks fluent German. And he complains that things are too “complicated.” But the movie isn’t complicated enough. And while it earns some points for avoiding obvious clichés (I can’t tell you what they are without spoilers), its ending still feels contrived. Part of the Berlin & Beyond Festival.

Michael Clayton, Red Vic, Friday & Saturday. The flip side of Erin Brockovich, with the hero working for a law firm defending an evil corporate giant from the people it has poisoned. His crisis of conscience starts when an old friend–the head lawyer in a huge litigation case (Tom Wilkinson)–goes off his meds and develops a conscience. In true thriller fashion, the plot twists in surprising ways, people’s lives are in danger, and it’s not always easy to tell the friends from the enemies. Writer/director Tony Gilroy created some interesting people into his thriller, then cast them to perfection. He also supplied a wonderful ending. But he’s less sure of himself with the plot, which leaks with holes.

Berlin & Beyond Preview, Part II

I managed to screen one more film before the festival:

Runaway Horse, Castro, Sunday, 8:15. Nothing like running into an old friend to ruin your vacation. You can certainly understand why Helmut feels that way. The old college buddy who suddenly turns up at the beach is loud, boisterous, and annoying, and comes adorned with a young, beautiful, and highly distracting girlfriend. Helmut can’t understand why his wife seems taken in with this new couple. But as we get to know Helmut better, the filmmakers show us that the friend isn’t the real problem. Deeply depressed socially, sexually, and emotionally, Helmut needs to be shocked back into life. At times Runaway Horse feels too pat, and the ending–which veers close to magical realism–only satisfies until the credits fade, but this story of four mismatched souls on vacation manages to be funny, heart-warming, intuitive, sexy, scary, suspenseful, and even occasionally wise.

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