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.

What’s Screening: June 19 – 25

In festival news, Frameline continues through this week. But, in a push against Frameline, Outside the Frame opens today and runs through Sunday. No, it’s not a Republican homophobic festival, but one that “challenges Frameline’s complicity with Israeli apartheid,” under the banner “Queers for Palestine.”

Akeelah and the Bee, Roxie, Sunday, 10:30am

A talent for spelling gives Akeelah—a poor, eleven-year-old African American—a shot at escaping the ghetto. But first, she’s going to have to learn about more than words from her mentor, played by Laurence Fishburne. Yes, it’s inspirational, but that’s not always a bad thing. A family movie screening at the Frameline LGBTQ festival.

Comedy Short Subject Night, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30

The monthly collection of two-reelers includes one of Buster Keaton’s best, One Week. I can also recommend the Laurel and Hardy entry, You’re Darn Tootin’–not they’re best silent but very funny. I haven’t seen the Chaplin short, Shanghaied, or the Charley Chase entry, No Father to Guide Him.

B+ Godzilla, Bal Theatre, San Leandro, Saturday, 7:00

Made in a country with recent memories of horrific bombings and destroyed cities, the original Godzilla presents the emotions of mass terror far more vividly than any of Hollywood’s giant monster movies of the same decade. Without English dubbing or added scenes with Raymond Burr, it’s a much better movie than you’d expect. It’s also, of course, the seed of one of cinema’s most popular and long-lasting franchises. The cast includes Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura. Also on the bill: A new documentary on Japanese horror films called Kaiju Gaiden.

A+ Jaws, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday and Wednesday

People associate Jaws with three men in a boat, but the picture is more than half over before the shark chase really begins. For that first half, Jaws is a suspenseful, witty variation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play, An Enemy of the People, but with a central character more conflicted and less noble (Roy Scheider). Then the three men get on the boat and the picture turns into a hair-raising variation on Moby Dick. Jaws’ phenomenal success helped create the summer blockbuster, yet by today’s standards, it’s practically an art film–albeit one that could scare the living eyeballs out of you. See my Blu-ray review and Book vs. Movie article.

A+ Casablanca, Clay, Friday and Saturday, 11:55PM (just before midnight)

You’ve either already seen the best film to come out of the classic Hollywood studio system, or you know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another sausage coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. For more details, see Casablanca: The Accidental Masterpiece.

A- Harold and Maude, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:30

The 1971 comedy Harold and Maude fit the late hippy era as perfectly as Pink Floyd and the munchies. At a time when young Americans embraced non-conformity, free love, ecstatic joy, and 40-year-old Marx Brothers movies, this counterculture romance between an alienated and death-obsessed young man and an almost 80-year-old woman made total sense. The broad and outrageous humor helped considerably. But I do wish screenwriter Colin Higgins had found a better ending. See my full discussion.

C+ Serenity, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30

Like many superb, original shows that somehow made it onto a weekly network schedule, Joss Whedon’s Firefly failed to find an audience and died after only a few episodes. This big-screen spin-off is a gift from the series’ creators to the handful of people who saw the show and wanted more. And while it’s nice to see all of the characters again, the movie’s attempt to close the story is a bit of a let-down. So if you haven’t seen Firefly, skip the movie and see the show; it’s streaming on Netflix.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am

Absolutely the worst Indiana Jones movie ever. First, Spielberg and company tried to make it dark and atmospheric, but only succeeded in making it unpleasant. Second, leading lady Kate Capshaw, now Spielberg’s wife, gives a performance about as enticing as nails on a chalkboard. And finally, the movie is horribly, irredeemably, D.W. Griffith-level racist. Two years after Attenborough’s Gandhi, Spielberg and Lucas assure us that India needed white people to protect the good, child-like Indians from their evil, fanatical compatriots.

B+ Clouds of Sils Maria, opens Friday

A great actress (Juliette Binoche) reluctantly accepts a part in a revival of the play that made her famous long ago. But this time, she’ll be playing a different, older character. To prepare for the role, the actress and her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) take up residence in a remote house located in an astonishingly beautiful part of the Swiss Alps. As they run lines, they almost unconsciously work through their own complicated relationship, which only  slightly echoes the play’s characters. This isn’t quite a two-person film, but Binoche and Stewart truly carry the picture. Read my full review.

Finally Catching Up with Apu

I finally saw Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy in its entirety this week. And yes, I loved it.

Epic in scope, the trilogy follows the life of poverty-born Apu from birth through young adulthood. None of the three films has a plot in any conventional sense, but they all brim with drama, laughter, joy, suspense, and heart-breaking tragedy. In other words, they’re about life in all of its complexity.

Except that it’s specifically about life in India in the first third of the 20th century. That means a very precarious life, in a society where dying of old age is rare. Almost everyone whom Apu loves dies too soon, and always of natural causes.

And it’s also, even more specifically, about the life of one man and his family.

2 apus

The films have been newly restored from some very damaged elements. The original negatives were destroyed in a fire in 1993. But L’Immagine Ritrovata at the Cineteca di Bologna did the seemingly impossible, physically restoring much of the burnt negative to the point where they could be scanned. What they couldn’t recover they scanned from other sources, and you can see the quality difference. The restoration is a miracle.

I saw the films on consecutive nights at the Shattuck.

Like all great filmmakers, Ray didn’t work alone. Much of the film’s power comes from the musical score by Ravi Shankar (not yet famous in the West). I’m not enough of an expert to know for sure, but I think that Shankar’s music showed greater western influence in the last film, The World of Apu. That makes sense, because Apu’s world becomes slightly more westernized as the story progresses.

Subrata Mitra’s atmospheric photography brings a great deal to the films–especially the first one, Pather Panchali. Set in a rural village, the light plays with trees in ways that are both beautiful and dramatic. I don’t know if Mitra was influenced by Kazuo Miyagawa’s work on Rashomon, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

And of course there’s the cast. Four actors played Apu at different ages throughout the trilogy, and they all seem to be the same person (not that the transitions are as smooth as those in Boyhood, but Ray couldn’t wait that long). Kanu Banerjee and Karuna Banerjee give excellent performances as Apu’s parents, and Sharmila Tagore as his wife.

Ray’s eye for unusual faces rival’s Kurosawa’s. He finds people who seem grotesque, but deeply human and therefore beautiful. Consider Chunibala Devi–the 83-year-old actress who plays the only major character who gets to grow old. (Of course, there are plenty of attractive people in the cast, as well.)

Okay, a quick rundown of the films themselves:

Pather Panchali
Our hero is born early in this film, which then skips a few years so we can know him as a curious and mischievous child. Upbeat in nature, Apu seems to delight in the world around him–despite considerable hardship. His rural family lives in desperate poverty, and his educated but dreamy father’s unrealistic optimism doesn’t help. Apu’s mother is far more level-headed, and that makes her far more scared. Meanwhile, Apu and his older sister Durga play and fight and avoid their responsibilities. There’s a great deal of joy in this film, but a greater deal of tragedy.

I’m very tempted to give Pather Panchali an A+, but I think I need to see it a few more times before I can be sure it deserves that grade. So consider it a very high A.

Aparajito
As is so often with trilogies, the middle film is the weakest, but it’s far from weak. Apu grows from late childhood into late adolescence, and his view of India and the world widens considerably. He excels in school and becomes excited by science. In many ways, it’s a more optimistic film than its predecessor; this kid just might be going places.

But there’s a heavy price to pay for advancement out of his class. His now widowed mother can’t bear to lose Apu to the world.

I give it an A-.

The World of Apu
The adult Apu leaves college, but seems reluctant to grow up. Like his father, he’s a dreamer, and assumes that good things will come his way. His best friend from college does much better, but then, he came from a rich family. One good thing does come his way: He marries, almost by accident, and finds happiness and true love. But tragedy is never far away in Apu’s world.

As with Pather Panchali, I’ll hold off the temptation to give it anything higher than an A until I’ve had a chance to revisit it.

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
4K DCP
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.

What’s Screening: June 12 – 18

I have a confession to make. Years ago, the San Francisco Black Film Festival fell off my radar, and I haven’t been promoting it since. That’s why I didn’t note its opening night last week. I won’t let that happen again. It runs through Sunday.

Here are this week’s other festivals. There are a lot of them:

The Apu Trilogy, Opera Plaza, Shattuck, opens Friday

It’s been way too long since I’ve seen Satyajit Ray’s trilogy about a young boy growing into a man, which is why I’m giving it a question mark rather than the obvious A or A+. All three films will be screened throughout the week from new 4K restorations (although they will be screened in 2K). Sorry, but you have to pay a separate admission for each film. On Sunday, in Berkeley, at the 7:15 show, San Francisco Film Society Programmer Rod Armstrong will introduce the first film, Pather Panchali.

Laurel & Hardy Shorts, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 3:30. FREE

The East Bay will actually host two separate series of Laurel and Hardy shorts on Sunday, almost simultaneously. But the three shorts screening at the PFA–Busy Bodies, County Hospital, and the one that won them their only Oscar, The Music Box–represent the comedy team at their best. The other screening is at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.

The Magnificent Ambersons, Rafael, Sunday

It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen Orson Welles’ second film–or at least what’s left of it after RKO severely recut it between previews and premiere. I remember it being warm and nostalgic, with a strong sense of loss for a way of life that is no more. Film historian Joseph McBride will discuss the studio-mandated changes.

B+ Himalaya, Rafael, Monday, 2:00

This narrative feature, that feels very much like a documentary, takes you to one of the most remote places human beings call home–Nepal’s harsh, high-altitude Dolpo region. Members of a small tribe must move over treacherous mountains to sell the salt they have gathered–a trip that would be dangerous enough without internal strife. But the chief’s son and heir apparent has just died, and the aging leader won’t give his blessing to the man most competent to lead the journey. Set against breathtaking scenery, Himalaya brings us into a culture most of us will never experience first-hand. Part of a one-day event benefitting Nepalese earthquake recovery.

A- Leave Her to Heaven, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:30

Gene Tierney’s “woman who loves too much” isn’t 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. Tierney gets top billing, but the real star of Leave Her to Heaven is Technicolor–a rarity for 40s noir–that helps capture the many scenic locations.

The Terminator, various CineMark theaters, Sunday, 2:00; Wednesday, 2:00 & 7:00

James Cameron’s first hit provides non-stop thrills that keep you on the edge of a heart attack. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the title character–a heartless machine sent back in time to murder the future mother of the man who will save humanity. Simple, straightforward, and modestly budgeted (three things you can’t say about recent Cameron pictures), The Terminator maintains an internal logic rare in time travel stories. Besides, it offers a now-rare view of our ex-governor’s naked butt. With Linda Hamilton as the killing machine’s intended victim, and Michael Biehn as the man sent back in time to save her.

A+ Alfred Hitchcock/Ernest Lehman double bill: North By Northwest & Family Plot, Castro, Wednesday

The A+ goes to Hitchcock’s light masterpiece, North by Northwest. Cary Grant plays an unusually suave and witty everyman in trouble with evil foreign spies (who think he’s a crack American agent), and by the police (who think he’s a murderer). And so he must escape almost certain death again and again while spending quality time with a very glamorous Eva Marie Saint. I can only give Family Plot, Hitchcock’s last film, a C. It has its moments, but not many of them, and it overdoes the suave, gentlemanly villain to the point where he isn’t scary. These are the only collaborations between Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman.

A+ Raiders of the Lost Ark, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am

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. But then, it’s great in an entirely different way. There’s absolutely nothing to take seriously in Raiders of the Lost Ark; just entertainment at its purist. The story is fundamentally preposterous, and the hero (Harrison Ford) is no more an archeologist than I am a butterfly. But the energy is so high, the action scenes so brilliantly choreographed and edited, and the whole story told with such enthusiasm and wit, that everything else just doesn’t matter.

A+ Die Hard, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:30

The 1980s was a great decade for big, loud action movies, and this just may be the best. It starts out as a relationship drama about a New York cop (Bruce Willis) in LA for Christmas, hoping to win back his estranged wife and kids. About half an hour into the movie, a group of Not Very Nice People take over the office building, interrupt a holiday party, and hold everyone hostage. Well, everyone except Willis, who spends the rest of the movie playing cat-and-mouse with the bad guys, bonding with an LA cop over a walkie-talkie, and mumbling about his rotten luck. The result is top-notch entertainment–even if its politics lean a bit to the right. See my appreciation.

A- Iris, Opera Plaza, opens Friday

Iris Apfel, a fixture in the New York fashion scene well in her 90s, dresses herself in loud, bright, and absurd clothes, augmented with even crazier accessories. And yet she looks great. Apfel still embraces her work with enthusiasm, and thus embraces life. Maysles follows her as she attends shows, shops in specialty stores in Harlem, shows off all of the absurd toys in her apartment, and treats her husband of more than 60 years to his 100th birthday party. And she’s almost always smiling. Read my full review.

A+ Casablanca, Clay, Friday and Saturday, 11:55PM (just before midnight)

You’ve either already seen the best film to come out of the classic Hollywood studio system, or you know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another sausage coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. For more details, see Casablanca: The Accidental Masterpiece.

Mystery Science Theater 3000New Parkway, Friday, 10:30.

Regular readers know that I’m a fan of the classic bad-movie-with-commentary TV show, Mystery Science Theater 3000. I have never seen an episode on the big screen with a full audience, but I suspect I’d enjoy it–especially if it’s a really good episode. I hope this will be a good episode; no one is telling us which one will be screened.

Sing-a-Long Sound of Music, Castro, Saturday

Friday through Sunday. Many people love it, but I find the biggest money maker of the 1960s lumbering, slow, and dull. Not funny or romantic enough to be light entertainment, yet lacking the substance to be anything else. And most of the songs give the impression that, by their last collaboration, Roger and Hammerstein had run out of steam. On the other hand, the Todd-AO photography of Alpine landscapes makes this one of the most visually beautiful of Hollywood movies–in a picture postcard kind of way. I have not actually experienced the sing-a-long version.

C- Vertigo, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00

I know. For many cinephiles, this isn’t just Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, but one of the greatest films ever made. But I just don’t get it. Neither the story nor most of the characters make any sense, and I don’t believe anyone’s motivations. The film contains one wonderful, believable, and likeable character, Barbara Bel Geddes’ Midge, but we don’t see enough of her to offset everything else. Yes, the film is very atmospheric, but that’s just not enough. I don’t need to stare at a screen to experience San Francisco’s fog.

What’s Screening: June 5 – 11

Ain’t we lucky? We’ve got four film festivals running this week in the Bay Area:

Hatari!, Castro, Thursday, 7:00

Archival dye-transfer Technicolor print!
This wild-animals-in-Africa adventure is the only Howard Hawks movie I saw when it was new (I was pretty new myself in 1962), and I loved it. I saw it again maybe 12 to 15 years ago, and wasn’t as impressed. (And no, I don’t remember it well enough to give it a grade.) But whether or not the movie is any good, it’s a dye-transfer Technicolor print, and that makes it tempting in itself. On a double bill with Roar, which I’ve never seen, but was apparently a disaster in every way possible.

Memento, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:30

Only this exceptional thriller by Christopher Nolan. And how many tell the story backwards, putting you into the mind of someone who can’t remember what just happened? Okay, but how many give that man a mental disability that guarantees failure and makes him dangerous to himself and others? Too many to name. How many thrillers center on a hero bent on identifying, and then killing, the man who murdered his wife? (If you didn’t understand the sentences above, see Memento, and then figure out how to read it)

B+ The Stranger, Rafael, Sunday

Probably Orson Welles’ most conventional movie, this 1946 noir stars Edward G. Robinson has a war crimes investigator looking for an important Nazi now living peacefully in an American small town. Welles himself plays the villain (no spoilers in this) who will do anything to protect himself and resurrect his beloved Reich. With Loretta Young as the beautiful ingénue who doesn’t suspect that she’s engaged to a monster. Part of the series Welles 100 Part One: 1941-1948.

Femme fatale noir double bill: Double Indemnity & Body Heat, Castro, Wednesday

A rich housewife will do anything to be an even richer widow, so she seduces a chump–one who thinks with his libido–into doing her dirty work. That tried and true plot works well for both of these movies. The A goes to Double Indemnity. Made by Billy Wilder in the days of heavy censorship, it has to manage seduction without really saying that anyone is having sex. But it has Barbara Stanwyck as the wicked wife, Fred MacMurray as the chump, and Edward G. Robinson as the co-worker and close friend that MacMurray must deceive. Body Heat, made in a very different and freer era,
has William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, and a lot of hard R sex. On its own, I’d give it I’d give it an A-.

A- Modern Times, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30

A mostly silent picture made years after everyone else had started talking (seven years earlier, it would have been called a “part talkie”), Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times laughs at assembly lines, mechanization, and the depression, with Chaplin’s tramp moving from job to job and jail to jail. With Paulette Goddard, the best leading lady of his career. Part of Charlie Chaplin Days.

B- Goldfinger, various CineMark theaters, Sunday, 2:00; Wednesday, 2:00 & 7:00

I’ve been a James Bond fan, on and off, for much of my life. But I never understood the appeal of the series’ third outing–and the one that really popularized Bond in the United States. True, Sean Connery was wonderful in the role he created. But Gert Frobe’s title character is a dull and unappealing villain. Even worse, Bond spends way too much of the story as a prisoner, and does very little to help save the day.

Henri Langlois Centennial Tribute: Opening Program, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:30

As the co-founder of La Cinémathèque française, Henri Langlois helped start the tradition of taking cinema seriously as an art, and doing what he could to find, preserve, and make available classic films. To open this series, Thanks to Henri Langlois: A Centennial Tribute, the PFA will screen La Tosca, a one-reel short from 1918 discovered by Langlois, and three documentaries about the man.

A+ The General, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

Buster Keaton pushed film comedy like no one else when he made this one. He meticulously recreated the Civil War setting. He mixed slapstick comedy with battlefield death. He hired thousands of extras and filmed what may be the single most expensive shot of the silent era (then used that shot as the setup for a gag whose punch line is a simple close-up). The result was a critical and commercial flop in 1926, but today it’s rightly considered one of the greatest comedies ever made. The theater mentions nothing about musical accompaniment, so I’m guessing they will screen the Blu-ray with one of the three scores on the disc; probably the excellent one by Carl Davis.

A+ Taxi Driver, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00

When I think of the 1970s as a golden age of Hollywood-financed serious cinema, I think of Robert De Niro walking the dark, mean streets of New York, slowly turning into a psychopath. Writer Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese put together this near-perfect study of loneliness as a disease. It isn’t that De Niro’s character hasn’t found the right companion, or society has failed him, or that he doesn’t understand intimacy. His problems stem from the fact that he’s mentally incapable of relating to other human beings. This is a sad and pathetic man, with a rage that will inevitably turn violent. Read my Blu-ray review.

Dr. Strangelove, Clay, Friday and Saturday, 11:55 (just before midnight)

General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) orders his men to bomb the USSR and start World War III. But have no fear! The men responsible for avoiding Armageddon (three of them played by Peter Sellers) are almost as competent as the Three Stooges. 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 were back then. I wrote about more about this film in 2013.

B+ Ghostbusters, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30

Comedy rarely gets this scary or this visually spectacular. Or perhaps I should say that special-effects action fantasies rarely get this funny (at least intentionally so). Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Sigourney Weaver appear to be having a great time as they try to control the phantasm and monsters suddenly attacking New York City. Not a bad way to pass an afternoon or evening.

A- Iris, New Parkway, opens Friday

Iris Apfel, a fixture in the New York fashion scene well in her 90s, dresses herself in loud, bright, and absurd clothes, augmented with even crazier accessories. And yet she looks great. Apfel still embraces her work with enthusiasm, and thus embraces life. Maysles follows her as she attends shows, shops in specialty stores in Harlem, shows off all of the absurd toys in her apartment, and treats her husband of more than 60 years to his 100th birthday party. And she’s almost always smiling. Read my full review.

A- Ex Machina, Balboa, opens Friday

This surprisingly intelligent film about artificial intelligence follows two men–one of whom is clearly insane–as they go beyond the Turing test to determine if a “female” robot is truly sentient. The story is basically Frankenstein, and like that classic, it’s not all-together believable, but still manages to bring up important questions. Can you be human without sexuality? Can the titans of tech do whatever they want with our private deeds and thoughts? Do you have a right to replace a sentient machine with version 2.0? And how does the sexual objectification of women fit in here? Read my full review.

The A+ List: The Last Laugh (also Brazil & Casablanca)

I can’t always be alphabetical as I write about the movies on my list of A+ films–the near-perfect masterpieces that I’ve loved for decades.

For instance, the next film on my list is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. But rather than write about it all over again, I’ll just point you to my Blu-ray Review.

And after that, comes Casablanca. I wrote an essay.

Alphabetically, the next film on the list that I haven’t written about is 8 ½ (which I alphabetize as Eight and a Half). But I just saw an old favorite at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and decided it deserved a full A+. And so I’m jumping out of chronological order.

The Last Laugh

If the clothes make the man, what happens to the man when his clothes are taken away? Does he loses his self-esteem? Or the love and respect of his friends and family? That’s what happens in the 1924 German masterpiece, The Last Laugh, written by Carl Mayer and directed by F.W. Murnau.

An aging hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) loves his job. He gets to wear a fancy uniform with big, brass buttons. He’s a member of the working class, but he dresses up, looks smart, and commands respect. And at the end of the workday, he comes home to his tenement apartment, still in his uniform, and enjoys a special status.

Then one morning he arrives at the hotel to see another doorman in his place. The manager, noting the trouble the doorman had carrying a big trunk, has decided that he’s too old for the job. He’s given a new job: washroom attendant. He’s so ashamed he steals his old uniform, and wears it home. He can’t even tell his family.

Silent films didn’t get any more silent than The Last Laugh. It tells almost everything visually, without benefit of language. The film has only one intertitle, separating the main story from the epilogue (more on that below). Occasionally Mayer and Murnau help the story along with an official document or a written, cake decoration, but I don’t think that happens more than three times in the movie. Everything else is told by visuals and pantomime.

You don’t miss intertitles any more than you would miss dialog.

A lot of the credit for that visual storytelling has to go to cinematographer Karl Freund. His amazing moving camera shots, in-camera special effects, and work with glass and mirrors tell the story as well as the acting and the magnificent, expressionistic sets.

Although The Last Laugh is set in a big, German city, and was shot in Berlin, you never see the real Berlin in the movie. Every shot in the picture was made in the UFA studios.

And let’s not forget Jannings’ contribution. Arguably the greatest film actor of his time (he would later win the first Best Actor Oscar), he plays the role oversized–that was German expressionism–but emotionally real. He takes the unnamed lead character’s journey from egotistical fool to broken object of pity–rejected by even his own family. A very sad ending, indeed.

Which brings us to that epilogue. Warning: Mild spoiler below. You may want to skip to below the photo.

The studio heads didn’t like the original ending. It was too depressing. So the director added a ridiculous, funny, unbelievable, happy-in-the-extreme ending. And to make sure that everyone understood his intent, he separated the main story from the ending with the film’s only intertitle–which basically acknowledges that this ending is tacked on and absurd.

It’s a brilliant way to end this essentially tragic film. You understand that life is hard and will grind you down, and that the happy ending is there only for commercial purposes. You get to laugh a lot in those last few minutes, and by and large you’re laughing with the main character. And even though you know it’s absurd, it still leaves you with a smile.

Okay, you can safely continue reading:

I first saw The Last Laugh on PBS in the early 1970s, when I was a teenager, newly besotted with my love of silent films. I knew it was fantastic even then.

I saw it again a few years ago, on DVD. I still loved it.

Last Friday, I finally saw it on the big screen, with live accompaniment and a large audience. That did it. Better able to appreciate the expressionistic sets, and sharing the film’s emotions and laughs with hundreds of other people, I finally realized that this isn’t just a great film, but a rare one.

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