Summer Season at the Pacific Film Archive

You may have noticed that the Pacific Film Archive is currently closed. No big deal; it always closes for a few weeks in May and June. It will open again on June 11.

But not for long. August 2 will be the last screening in the current PFA theater. When it reopens, hopefully early next year, it will be in the new location just west of the campus.

So what will screen in those scant 52 days? Quite a bit. Here are the upcoming series:

Thanks to Henri Langlois: A Centennial Tribute
This series honors the late, great archivist and cofounder of La Cinémathèque française, screening films that would no longer exist without his dedication. Ernst Lubitsch’ 1924 Forbidden Paradise, Early Films by Abel Gance, Tod Browning’s Lon Chaney vehicle, The Unknown, and two Erich von Stroheim features: Foolish Wives and Queen Kelly.

A Theater Near You
The PFA’s traditional series for films that don’t fit into any of their series. This time around, it includes Hiroshima mon amour, the Maysles brothers’ Grey Gardens, and the new restoration of Powell/Pressburger collaboration The Tales of Hoffmann (screening on my birthday).

Sunday Funnies: Laurel & Hardy and W. C. Fields

Can’t get much wrong here, although I wish the series included some silents. And while I realize that I’m in the minority here, I don’t put Way Out West amongst L&H’s best features. I would have picked Sons of the Desert or Blockheads.

The Phantom Foe
How do you present a a 15-chapter, silent, 1920 serial at a film archive? The PFA will screen this “proto-feminist masterpiece of terror and tension” on three Sunday evenings–five chapters each. All will be archival prints; with Judith Rosenberg on piano.

Melodrama Master: John M. Stahl

I’m not very familiar with this director, and the only film on this program that I’ve seen is the Technicolor noir, Leave Her to Heaven. But I liked that one.

The Poetry of Time: Andrei Tarkovsky
I’ve been telling myself that I need a serious dive into Tarkovsky. This is my chance.

New Video Art from India
This isn’t really a series, but a single screening of shorts.

An Open Window: Víctor Erice
This Spanish director, best known for The Spirit of the Beehive, must be a slow worker–he’s made only three features in a career that spans over 40 years. But this isn’t the only series built around Erice. See:

Cinema According to Víctor Erice

This much longer series of Erice’s personal favorites include Sansho the Bailiff, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Renoir’s The River (a dye-transfer archival print), City Lights, and They Live By Night. The series, and the PFA’s use of the on-campus, off-Bancroft theater, will end with Ozu’s Tokyo Story,

By the way, both Tales of Hoffman and The River were shot in three-strip Technicolor, and originally released in dye-transfer prints. They’re playing only four days apart–The River in 35mm dye transfer, and Hoffman off a DCP. This should make a great way to compare the old and new projection technologies.

Cerrito Classics going on hiatus

The Cerrito theater is halting its monthly Classics series until September. Why? Here’s the official explanation:

Cerrito Classics are shown by the Friends of the Cerrito Theater, under the auspices of Rialto Cinemas, which operates the Cerrito. Rialto operates as a first-run theater, with special showings of filmed productions of London plays, as well as films about famous artists.

Rialto has contracts with major studios, which are able to enforce the number of showings for their current movies. While the plays and art films are exempt from these studio rules, additional programs such as Cerrito Classics are not.

With the summer 2015 blockbuster season approaching, some of the studios are enforcing their contracts, and demanding that they be able to have the maximum number of showings of their new movies. Thus the cancellation of Cerrito Classics for May through August 2015.

Rialto made this step reluctantly, as they have been great supporters of the Cerrito Classics, which are very popular with the community. The Classic for this month, for example, “A Shadow of a Doubt,” played to a sold-out house.

What makes this particularly curious is that, as far as I know, a lot of other first-run theaters are continuing their weekly classics series. This includes the Alameda and the very big CineMark chain, which now shows a classic every Sunday afternoon and Wednesday afternoon and evening.

Of course, you can always check here at Bayflicks to see what classics are screening theatrically in the Bay Area.

The Shattuck Cinema is in Danger

Landmark’s 10-screen Shattuck Cinema is an oasis for Berkeley and Oakland film lovers. Probably the largest multiplex in the East Bay devoted primarily to foreign and independent cinema, it usually offers several films worth seeing.  As I write this, It’s showing Two Days, One Night, Birdman, Selma, The Theory of Everything, and Wild, and that’s just the films that I’ve seen and given an A or A-.

And although it appears to be profitable, the Shattuck is in danger. The building that contains it is owned by Hill Street Realty LLC, which wants to tear down the building and build an 18-story residential tower in its place. This would require demolishing the multiplex. What’s more, I suspect that "the Residences at Berkeley Plaza" won’t provide affordable homes.

The Shattuck won’t be the only victim. The Habitot Children’s Museum, also in that building, would have to find another home.

Landmark has invested considerably in the Shattuck over the years. The company remodeled the Shattuck in 2008/09, with an improved concession stand and more comfortable seats. They went fully digital a couple of years ago, but kept one 35mm projector just in case.

Which isn’t to day that everything has always been perfect there. My first digital, and first 3D experience at the Shattuck was a considerable disappointment. But generally, the Shattuck has been a great place to see new non-Hollywood films in the East Bay.

According to a San Francisco Business Times article, "The developer plans a new six-screen cinema that would replace the current theater." But six screens isn’t ten, and Hill Street hasn’t promised the theater to Landmark. Besides, "plans" isn’t the same as "signed a contract."

If this bothers you, send an angry email to the city government at zab@ci.berkeley.ca.us, and drop by https://www.facebook.com/saveshattuckcinemas.

Fort Apache at the Alameda

imageTuesday night, I visited the Alameda Theater for the first time, for a screening of John Ford’s Fort Apache. This was also my first time seeing this classic on the big screen.

The Alameda is a huge, beautiful, art deco theater originally built in 1932. It was, of course, originally built as a single-screen theater. And although it has been turned into a multiplex, the original auditorium remains in its original size–including the balcony. I’d guess that it can sit about 1,000. There are some modern changes–the chairs are new and comfortable, with drink holders. Surround speakers line the wall (a lot of them). And, unfortunately, there’s no curtain.

But the Alameda is impressive before you get to the auditorium. The lobby is huge and sumptuous.

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While it mostly shows new films, the Alameda has a classic movie series that runs on Tuesday and Wednesday in the main theater. I’ve been mentioning their classics in the weekly newsletter for years, but until this Tuesday I had never attended one.

Before the film started, the head of the classics series, Cassady Toles–Host of the Alameda Classic Series–came out and talked about it. He mentioned other movies coming up, their Oscar party, and especially plugged Elevator to the Gallows (I’m happy to plug that one, too). He hawked the Classic Movie Passes–eight films for $44–and asked people not to pay full price. (I did, and it was only $8.) He asked trivia questions about the film before starting it.

Unfortunately, Warner Brothers hasn’t made Fort Apache available on DCP, so the Alameda had to make due with a Blu-ray. (The theater has one 35mm projector, but old films generally require two.) A really good Blu-ray would have been fine, but this one suffered from mediocre transfer, with a bit of a  video look. Chances are that if Warner did provide a DCP, it would be of the same transfer and with the same look.

There were other technical problems. The audio was slightly out of sync for the entire film. And in the film’s last minutes, everything just stopped. After a few seconds, everything came back on again, back where we left off. But this time, the aspect ratio was off, cropping off part of the image vertically.

Toles told me before the film that most of the classics are projected off DCPs. I imagine that these sorts of problems would be less likely in that situation.

There was a good-sized audience. After the movie, people stuck around a bit and talked about it.

Now then, about the movie itself:

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The first and best film in Ford’s accidental "Cavalry Trilogy" both romances the horse soldiers who cleared the West of its rightful inhabitants, and looks on in horror at the prejudice that made that crime possible. It’s a film about our mistreatment of Native Americans told entirely from a white perspective.

Henry Fonda plays the new commanding officer at the fort–extremely strict, close-minded and bigoted. He hate the Apaches, whom he views unworthy adversaries. He doesn’t seem to like much of anyone. He won’t allow his daughter (Shirley Temple, now in her late teens) to marry a young Lieutenant (John Agar) because the Lieutenant’s father is only a sergeant. John Wayne’s Captain York is the film’s liberal voice of reason.

Much of the film explores and celebrates life in the fort. It’s a full community, housing the wives and children of the soldiers, with its own rituals and celebrations. There’s warmth, love, humor, and good-natured kidding around. Fonda’s Lt. Col. Owen Thursday seems to find all of this uncomfortable.

Our first encounter with the Apaches follows the worst of stereotypes. They’re murdering savages who need to be put down. Then we meet the trader who has been bilking them. York tries to explain to Thursday why the Apaches–or anyone who cared about their people–left the reservation. But Thursday is set on a military victory. His ambition and hatred of the Apaches sends him into battle. His contempt for these "breech-clothed savages" drives him, and his men, into a trap.

Much as Ford clearly condemns Thursday, he can’t quite condemn the military mind. The men, with little or no respect for Thursday, follow him into what they know will be their death. And Ford celebrates this. These soldiers are wonderful, in Ford’s view, because when told to march into a death trap by a commander who won’t see what they all know, they follow orders.

The ending, with Wayne’s York at a press conference, can be viewed many ways. I always think of Colin Powell at the UN, lying, hating himself for lying, but doing it anyway because he’s a soldier.

It’s playing again tonight (Wednesday), in case you’re looking for a classic to watch on the big screen.

There’s a new silent movie venue in town

"The 21st century is no place to watch early 20th-century movies."

That’s the claim of the Excelsior Moveable Movie Palace, which will have its first public screening in Berkeley this coming Sunday night. The idea is to recreate the experience of watching these films when they were new. "When you see the world through the eyes of say, 1913 (great year for a lot of things), you’re watching a new 1913 movie, hearing new 1913 songs, inhabiting the 1913 world as a familiar place, as your own time. At our shows it’s not D.W. Griffith WAS, or Mary Pickford WAS, or Rudolph Valentino WAS; Griffith IS, Pickford IS, Valentino IS."

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Of course, in 1913, Valentine IS a struggling unknown, but you get the point.

How will they recreate the time? Everything will be projected from film. The people working there will be appropriately dressed and, I assume, will be acting the parts. The creative force behind the project, Annie Lore, is a veteran of the Dickens and Renaissance Faires, and she understands that sort of living history immersive theater.

Which brings me to a disclaimer: I’m also a veteran of those fairs (or faires; it’s complicated). I’ve known Annie for a very long time. I also know accompanist Ellen Hoffman from those crazy days. Ellen is an excellent pianist, who recently accompanied Rita Moreno at a local concert.

This Sunday, they’ll be playing at the Art House Gallery in Berkeley. The year will be 1929, and they’ll show a selection of comedy shorts–mostly from the the Hal Roach studio. The stars include Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chase, and Harry Langdon.

Actually, several of the shorts would have been pretty old in ’29; the only one I’ve seen, It’s a Gift, was six years old by then. But it’s a very funny Snub Pollard vehicle and worth seeing.

Perhaps the strangest entry is The Sheik’s Physique from 1925, described as "Rudolph Valentino’s only comedy short."

Although the Art House Gallery will be their more-or-less permanent home, Excelsior is designed as a traveling show. "Excelsior comes to you, with your own film festival
for a few friends– or a few hundred, at your home or school, or library or church or museum or community center or rented hall or club, or you name it. This doesn’t mean that there are no public showings; we can be booked at events or performance venues like any act."

Kind of like vaudeville. And remember, the movies started in vaudeville.

The Interview at the New Parkway (Spoiler: The theater didn’t blow up)

I haven’t written anything yet about The Interview and its assorted release problems. Why should I? Everyone else has already written about it. Besides, I was on vacation.

Now I’m back. Sunday night, my wife and I saw Kim Jong Un’s least favorite movie at the New Parkway. Perhaps it was a case of lowered expectations, but I enjoyed the movie–for the most part.

Of course I didn’t go because I thought it was the best film currently in theaters. I went to support free speech and free cinema. I went because if someone tries to stop a film from running in theaters, there’s a moral obligation to support that movie.

Because of the threats, The Interview became one of the rare big Hollywood features to open simultaneously in theaters and on pay-per-view streaming. This day-and-date release, as it’s called, just may be the future of the movie business, but for the present is only common with low-budget or foreign films not likely to make much money in the US. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, Magnolia released Pioneer day-and-date. Since it’s subtitled, contains no superheroes, and–at least in my opinion–is a mediocre picture, its commercial prospects weren’t promising.

But we chose to spend the extra money to see The Interview theatrically. After all, the hackers didn’t threaten to blow up homes where the movie was showing. Besides, comedies are always better with the crowd.

I’ve been to the New Parkway several times, but this was my first experience in Theater 1. The layout was very different from Theater 2, which I described in 2013. It’s smaller, and the room doesn’t dwarf the screen. Instead of living room furniture, it has tables and chairs, and feels like a coffeehouse.

And what about The Interview?

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It starts out hilariously, as James Franco’s brainless, party animal of a TV host interviews Eminem. This is the last person you want as your partner on a CIA mission to assassinate North Korea’s dictator. The unfortunate man who has him as a partner is his far more intelligent producer, played by Seth Rogen (who also co-directed). Despite the wonderful setup, and a number of great bits along the way (Randall Park plays the evil Kim wonderfully as another party animal), the movie sags. In the last act, it becomes an action film, with great splashes of blood, multiple severed fingers, and good guy bullets proving far more fatal than bad guy bullets. It still manages some good jokes along with the way, but they’re overshadowed by the mayhem. I would have preferred a clever ending to the big action extravaganza we get.

I give it a B.

Oh, and by the way, despite the previous threats, no one bombed the theater.

Return to the UC Theatre

Thursday night, I attended an open house at the UC Theatre, once my shrine to the art and joy of cinema. As I mentioned back in April, The Berkeley Music Group plans to reopen the UC next year as a music venue.

I was surprised by how much the theater hasn’t changed. It was in pretty bad condition, but the walls, the surround speakers, and the seats were as they always were.

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Excuse the image quality of the picture above. The camera in my phone doesn’t do well with low light conditions.

Unfortunately, we were only allowed in the lobby and in a small corner of the back of the auditorium. If I had been able to walk down the aisle to the third row center, where I had spent so much time, I might have cried.

On the other hand, from what I could see, the seats in the front center section have been removed.

Of course I’d rather the UC be re-opened as a repertory house–the Castro East, so to speak. But alas, that’s not where the money is. Hopefully, they’ll install good projectors and use it as a movie venue as well as a musical one.

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