The Castro in July

The Castro‘s July calendar is up–at least in its details-free “Coming Soon” version is up. Here are some highlights:

July 5:
Jaws plays a lot in the theaters I cover, but this time it will play on a double bill with one of the first Jaws rip-offs, Roger Corman’s Piranha. Not a great movie, but it has the distinction of being John Sayles’ first produced screenplay.

July 10: A Dolly Parton double-bill of 9 to 5 and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I haven’t seen either, but I’ve also never heard of a Dolly Parton double bill.

July 12: A matinee-only screening of The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T.–the only Dr. Seuss feature film made in his lifetime and with his cooperation. And one of the strangest and most delightful children’s films ever made.

July 16: As a Christopher Lee tribute double bill, the theater will screen Horror of Dracula and The Wicker Man.
Horror was the first of Hammer’s Dracula films starring Lee, and probably the best. I have not seen The Wicker Man since it’s American release nearly 40 years ago, and was very impressed then. I understand that the restored director’s cut is much better.

July 19: Two of Alfred Hitchcock’s best British films. The 39 Steps was one of the two films that made him the unrivaled Master of Suspense (the other being the original version of The Man Who Knew too Much). The second is his penultimate British film, and in my opinion his best before he hopped the pond, The Lady Vanishes. You can read my Blu-ray review.

The last night days of the month belong to the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. I intend to screen some of those films before opening night. I’ll tell you what I find.

SF Jewish Film Festival: 35th edition

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which claims to be “the first and largest festival of its kind,” turns 35 this summer. The 17-day collection of screenings and other events will take place all around the Bay Area.

Whether it really is the first or largest, it is certainly my favorite of what I call ethnic film festivals–those that concentrate on a certain type of person. But my reason is totally subjective: I’m Jewish, so this festival concentrates on people like me.

Nevertheless, I missed Tuesday’s press conference. I had a good excuse. I was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail–or at least a very tiny bit of it.

The festival runs from July 23 through August 9 in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Palo Alto and San Rafael.

As near as I can tell, I have not yet seen anything screening in this year’s festival. But here are a few films and events that sound promising.

  • Dough: The opening-night dramedy followed the growing professional relationship between an aging kosher baker and his young Muslim assistant. When the assistant accidentally spills pot into the challah dough…well, I haven’t seen the movie and can’t go beyond that.
  • The Armor of Light: This documentary follows Rob Schenck, an ethnically Jewish evangelical minister and anti-abortion activist who begins to feel a certain contradiction between being pro-gun and pro-life.
  • Freedom of Expression Award: Lee Grant & Tell Me a Riddle: This year’s award goes to actress Lee Grant, who was blacklisted in the 1950s for refusing the cooperate with the anti-Communist witch hunt. Grant directed Tell Me a Riddle, which was screened at the very first San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
  • A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did: Every year, I say I want a Holocaust-free Jewish Film Festival. And yet, every year, there’s at least one worthwhile film about the Shoah. This British documentary, about the sons of two Nazi executions, just might be it this year.

I’ll try to view some of these films before the festival, and will let you know what I think about them.

Three Ways to See Three-Strip Technicolor at the PFA

They stopped making three-strip Technicolor movies about 60 years ago. The movies are still around, and they’re still beautiful. This summer, the Pacific Film Archive will screen three different films shot in the still-loved format, and thanks to the way they’re being screened, each one projected using a different technology. You can decide which is best way to see them.

From the mid-1930s to the early 1950s, almost every Hollywood color film was shot in Technicolor No. IV–casually known as “three-strip Technicolor.” These include Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Bandwagon, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and The African Queen.

The unofficial name tells you how it worked. Through a beam splitter, filters, and special film stocks, a special camera captured each primary color on a separate strip of black-and-white film.

From Filmmaker IQ

From each of these three negatives, Technicolor would create a special relief print that was thicker where the image was darkest. From these three intermediate prints (called matrices), the lab would literally print (in the pre-photographic sense of the word) the colors to 35mm release prints. You can find more technical details at the Widescreen Museum and the Timeline of Historical Film Colors.

From The American Widescreen Museum

These dye-transfer prints (the official name was IB, for imbibition) have a considerably longer history than three-strip. Technicolor introduced them in 1928 as an improved printing method for their then-current two-color system. And when three-strip died around 1954, Technicolor started making IB prints off of three-strip’s replacement–Eastman Color Negative film. The company continued this service until the mid-1970s.

So what does all this mean for presenting and watching three-strip films today?

Both three-strip and dye-transfer have significant advantages in preservation and restoration. The printing dyes in IB prints don’t fade as quickly as the photochemical dyes in color film (especially color film from the 50s, 60s, and 70s). And since the three-strip negatives store color information on black-and-white film, fading colors isn’t an issue.

But three-strip has its own problems. Film shrinks over time, and no three cans of film are going to shrink exactly the same way. Even the slightest shrinkage can cause a disaster when three strips have to line up perfectly. Because of their high contrast, dye-transfer prints don’t make good sources for new copies.

Digital technology has solved the shrinking problem. You can scan all three negatives at a high resolution (say, 4K), resize them to match each other, and produce a full image. But this sort of restoration requires three things not always available. You need the original negatives (or at least black and white protection positives made from them), a lot of money, and people who know what they’re doing.

So let’s look at the three films to be screened at the PFA this summer, and how they’ll be projected:

Leave Her to Heaven
35mm Eastmancolor print
Thursday, June 18

I strongly suspect that the PFA will screen the same print I saw in 2008–or certainly one from the same restoration. And as beautiful as I found the print, I suspect this will be the least accurate three-color experience of the PFA summer.

In the 1970s, Twentieth Century-Fox created new, color-film negatives of their three-strip titles. Then they did something unforgivable: They destroyed the original three-strip camera negatives. When the color negatives inevitably faded, they had no way to restore them.

So the Film Foundation basically had to colorize this film, using the sole surviving three-strip print as a guide. In other words, they didn’t really restore the colors, they painted them in.

By the way, this is the only one of the three I’ve seen. A rare Technicolor 40s noir, it stars Gene Tierney as a woman who loves too much. She’ not the typical film noir femme fatale, seducing men to their doom in her quest for material ends. She doesn’t need material things, but she needs her man (Cornel Wilde) so desperately she can’t bear the thought of sharing him with friends or family. And she’s willing to do anything to keep him to herself. I give it an A-.

The River
35mm Technicolor IB dye-transfer print
Wednesday, July 15

Jean Renoir took the big Technicolor cameras to the newly-independent nation of India to film this coming-of-age story. And the PFA will screen it in an actual Technicolor dye-transfer print from 1952.

That’s about as close to the original experience as you can get.

Note: I altered this section after first posting the article, after confirming when the print was manufactured.


The Tales of Hoffmann
Sunday, July 19

If Leave Her to Heaven is the problematic restoration, and The River is closest to the original experience, The Tales of Hoffmann provides an example of an ideal restoration, done off of the original, 35mm three-strip camera negative. I haven’t seen the restoration (or the film in any form), but i trust the people who did it.

Unlike Heaven, Hoffmann will
be projected the way it was restored–digitally. I realize that many will object, but not me. Taking it from the digital domain and converting it back into film loses image quality, and adds nothing except vibration, flicker, and, inevitably, scratches.

Of course, I hope that they have transferred it back to film for archival purposes. it will be decades before we know if we can safely archive bits.

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.

San Francisco International Film Festival Preview

Here are five films I’ve previewed for the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival. I’ve arranged them in order from potential masterpiece to stinker.

Except that there are no stinkers in this batch. As Dorothy Parker once said of Katherine Hepburn’s acting range, these films run the gamut from A to B. Only in this case, that’s a compliment.

A Dearest
Heart-breaking, thoughtful, suspenseful, and complex, Dearest is easily the best new drama I’ve seen this year. A young child is kidnapped (apparently a common crime in China), and his divorced parents react in different ways. While his mother (Hao Lei) sinks into depression, his father (Huang Bo) takes a reckless proactive approach, following pointless leads and con artists. They find some solace with a support group. Then, halfway through the picture, the plot  takes a very unexpected turn and the moral issues become much more complicated.

  • Clay, Saturday, April 25, 6:00
  • Kabuki, Thursday, April 30, 6:30

A- Democrats
image  How does a country transition from dictatorship to democracy–especially when the dictator is still running the show? Camilla Nielsson’s cinema vérité documentary tries to answer that question as it follows the process of creating a new, more democratic constitution for Zimbabwe. The film’s clear hero is Douglas Mwonzora, an activist fighting for what he sees as his country’s second liberation struggle (the first involved kicking out the British). It seems like an impossible dream, with President (and in reality dictator) Robert Mugabe holding all of the cards. Yet Mwonzora and his collaborators can laugh and joke about every roadblock thrown up in front of them. More suspense than your average thriller, and far more informative.

A- Best of Enemies
In the tumultuous year of 1968, the ABC television network put the reactionary William F. Buckley Jr. and the progressive Gore Vidal on TV to debate the issues of the day. They were both erudite, east-coast intellectuals, and their world views were as different as they could get. This breezy and entertaining documentary offers a plausible argument that those debates changed American TV news, and thus changed America. If you’re at all interested in recent American history, see this film.

  • Kabuki, Friday, April 24, 9:00
  • Clay, Sunday, April 26, 3:30

B+ The Postman’s White Nights
This Russian ethnographic tale has three strong elements going for it. It’s a beautifully photographed film. Second, it brings us to a place that most of us have never experienced–summer in a small village in northern Russia. And finally, it introduces us to Lyokha (Aleksey Tryapitsyn), the affable but lonely mailman who climbs into his boat every morning and travels across the water to collect the village mail. Lyokha is kind, knowledgeable, makes a good surrogate father for the son of a single mother, and is utterly helpless in his attempts to find romance. Filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky brings us to a community that holds on to its roots while still being part of the modern world.

B Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon
The National Lampoon magazine was irreverent, offensive, bold, crazy, satirical, and often hilarious. It spawned, among other things, Saturday Night Live. As someone who grew up on Mad Magazine, and reached adulthood (if not maturity) in the early 1970s, I was very much part of the Lampoon’s target audience. Douglas Tirola’s fast-paced documentary brought back a lot of fun memories while introducing me to the people who made the laughs. Zany graphics, interviews with very funny people, a 70s rock soundtrack, video clips from their live shows, and animated versions of the magazine’s cartoons keep it lively. But the film crams too much history into 93 minutes, making it occasionally hard to follow. And it never really confronts the extreme sexism of the Lampoon.

  • Kabuki, Friday, April 24, 9:30
  • Kabuki, Sunday, April 26, 9:30

Note: On April 22, I discovered that I had left screening times off for Democrats. I have just corrected that.

SFIFF: Paul Schrader to be honored in this year’s Kanbar Award

The San Francisco International Film Festival just announced that writer and sometimes director Paul Schrader will receive this year’s Kanbar Award for life achievement in storytelling (previously, it was life achievement in screenwriting).

I guess he’s a good choice. He’s written at least two great films: Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Both were directed by Martin Scorsese. Since Scorsese has made more great films without Schrader than Schrader has made without Scorsese, one has to assume the director played the more important role in their brilliance.

Other films he’s written include American Gigolo, The Last Temptation of Christ, Blue Collar, and Obsession. Schrader also directed The Canyons, which–from I’ve heard–was one of the major embarrassments of 2013 (I didn’t see it). But he didn’t write that one, and this isn’t an award for directing, so that’s okay.

He’ll be honored at the Kabuki on Tuesday, April 28, at 6:30. I do not know who’s going to interview him.

After the interview, the festival will screen Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, a film that he wrote and directed in 1985. I saw it at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 2008. My reaction: It’s not so much a great film as several great short films that kind of hang together.

Richard Gere, Guillermo del Toro, and the rest of this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival

This year’s San Francisco International Film Festival officially launched at a San Francisco press conference Tuesday morning. It opens Thursday, April 23 with Alex Gibney’s tech documentary, Steve Jobs: the Man In the Machine. Two Thursdays later, on May 7, it will close with Experimenter, a history-based drama about psychologist Stanley Milgram, who did some horrifying experiments in his day.

Oddly enough, the Centerpiece film on May 2 sounds like it would make a better closing nighter. It’s called The End of the Tour.

Including those three, the festival will run 102 feature films–including 35 documentaries–and 79 shorts. There will also be talks, master classes, live music, and Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porno Live (don’t get your hopes up–or your organs; it’s about animals).

And, of course, there will be the various awards:

  • The Irving M. Levin Directing Award (or as I prefer to call it, the award formerly named for Akira Kurosawa) goes to Guillermo Del Toro. They’ll screen his 2001 film, The Devil’s Backbone.
  • The Mel Novikoff Award, which honors those who help keep love of cinema alive, goes to Lenny Borger. I hadn’t heard of him either. He translates French dialog into English subtitles, and he finds and restores lost and mostly forgotten films. These include Monte-Cristo, the 1929 silent adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ novel that the festival will screen.
  • The Peter J. Owens Award for life achievement in acting goes to Richard Gere. The festival will screen Time Out of Mind.
  • As I write this, the Festival hasn’t picked a winner for the Kanbar Award, which is now an award for story-telling, not screenwriting. What’s the difference? It can now include the writer/producers who oversee long-form television stories.
  • This year, special effects wizard and sometimes director Douglas Trumbull will give the State of the Cinema address.

Among the music events, I’m most interested in Kronos Quartet Beyond Zero: 1914-1918. The famed (and local) quartet will accompany a new film by Bill Morrison, put together from World War 1 newsreel footage. Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov wrote the score.

But not everything is a special presentation. Here are some regular movies that look promising:

  • Mr. Holmes: Believe it or not, someone has found another approach to Sherlock Holmes. This time around, Sir Ian McKellen plans an aging, retired detective.
  • Best of Enemies: Televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. from 1968.
  • The Postman’s White Nights: Set in rural, northern Russia, this leisurely story looks at small town life at the edge of the world.
  • Of Men and War: A documentary about veterans and the psychological wounds of combat.
  • 54: the Director’s Cut: The restored, original cut of Mark Christopher’s story of the famous club.

As I write this, I haven’t seen a single film on the menu–even the revivals. But I hope to preview some beforehand, and see more of them at the festival itself. I’ll keep you informed.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 73 other followers