Hollywood’s Annual Festival of Self-Adoration

It’s Oscar time. This Sunday evening we forget about war and oppression and find out who we really hate. For my money, that’s the advertisers, the choreographers, and anyone who takes the Academy Awards seriously.

Don’t get me wrong. I never miss Hollywood’s annual festival of self-adoration. I find it fascinating; like a car wreck without a hair out of place. And yet, there are times every year when I’m genuinely moved, like when an award actually goes to someone who deserves it.

This year, I’m not sure who I want to win Best Picture. Million Dollar Baby is clearly a masterpiece, and deserves the award. On the other hand, I’ve publicly stated that The Aviator would win, and I want the Academy to prove me a genius–if only at predicting the obvious. Besides, it’s Scorsese’s turn.

But the big Oscar question isn’t who will win but where to watch? The Balboa, the Castro, the Lark, and the Rafael are all hosting Oscar broadcasts. (So is the Parkway, but it’s already sold out.) Me? I’m staying home with the family and the TiVo–which lets us start late and skip the commercials). Some shows belong on the small screen.

In other news, the March/April Pacific Film Archive calendar is out. Among the more promising series are a tribute to B picture director Edgar G. Ulmer and a continuation of Games People Play. The word color gets a workout with both a Women of Color Film Festival and Crying in Color: How Hollywood Coped When Technicolor Died. Not everything in the Women of Color series is actually in color, which makes me wonder if the PFA could do a Women of Color in Black and White Film Festival. The Archive is also the East Bay venue for the Asian-American and San Francisco International Film Festivals.

And now, your weekly dose of recommendations and other noteworthy presentations:

  • Noteworthy: Deep Throat, Roxie, opening Friday. No, this isn’t the current Inside Deep Throat documentary, but the legendary original, gag-inducing in so many ways.

  • Recommendation: Jaws, Act I & II, Friday and Saturday, midnight movie. Steven Spielberg’s first big hit and one of the great suspense flicks of the ’70s.

  • Recommendation: The Palm Beach Story and Horse Feathers, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. Another Preston Sturges/Marx Brothers double-bill–two very different but very funny motion pictures. Just look out for the Weenie King; whatever it is, I’m against it.

  • Recommendation: Ninotchka, Balboa, Saturday and Monday. We don’t normally associate Garbo with comedy, but when a movie is written by Billy Wilder and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, you can’t associate it with anything else. A great, anti-Communist romantic farce. It’s double-billed both nights with Anna Karenina.

  • Recommendation: The Day the Earth Stood Still, Castro, Saturday and Sunday. Perhaps the best science fiction film of the 50’s, and one of the few that saw our paranoia of the other, rather than the other itself, as the problem. It’s a little heavy-handed in the message department, but the Jesus symbolism is reasonably subtle.

  • Noteworthy: Tron, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday. I haven’t seen this movie in more than 20 years, but I remember it as big, silly, mindless fun–and in those days, cutting-edge. It was the first movie to extensively use computer graphics, and one of the last to be shot in 65mm. The Archive will be showing a new 35mm print, but I’d rather see a new 70mm print, and on a bigger screen.

The Last Sunday Newsletter

This is Bayflicks’ last Sunday newsletter.

No, I’m not giving up the site. I’m just moving the newsletter from Sunday afternoon to Friday morning, because movie recommendations are more useful before the weekend. The weekly schedules will still run from Sunday to Saturday because, damn it, the week starts on Sunday. Call me old-fashioned–I don’t even spell Bayflicks with an x. But my new policy means you’ll get two newsletters this week for the price of one. (Or, since the newsletter is free, that’s really two for the price of none.)

In other news, there’s a new Castro calendar out. A lot of people are still angry at the Castro for firing Anita Monga–hell, I’m still angry about it. But the new programmer, Richard Blacklock, seems intent on winning our love with some terrific movies. Among the coming revivals coming up are The Day the Earth Stood Still, Blow-Up, The Conformist, and Brazil. There’s also Two Thousand Maniacs and It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, although not, great as it would look on a marquee, as a double-bill. The new schedule also has plenty of obscure new films and two major film festivals. More details as the dates get closer.

One technical complaint about the new schedule: The online program notes are only in a ready-to-print PDF file, making it impossible for me to provide links to the individual movies. I’m hoping this is only temporary.

Just a handful of recommendations this week–more on Friday:

  • Recommendation: Ray continues its run at the Lark through Thursday.

  • Recommendation: If you can get away on Wednesday afternoon, the Pacific Film Archive will be showing My Darling Clementine at 3:00. This is one of the greatest westerns ever made, atmospheric, character-driven, and beautiful.

  • Recommendation: And The Lady Eve and Duck Soup play tonight at the Stanford. Two of the greatest comedies Hollywood ever made.

What I Don’t Have Time to Watch

Inevitable death isn’t the only problem with mortality; there are also the time constraints. I simply don’t have enough decades to read every good book, meet every interesting person, or see every movie that arouses my curiosity.

That last one has been bugging me, lately. I’ve only managed to spend one day at the International Buddhist Film Festival and seen one film at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival. I have yet to catch The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, The Merchant of Venice, or even House of Flying Daggers. And let’s not even talk about the movies sitting on my TiVo!

But I did manage to see Moolaadé, and it is fantastic. Writer/director Ousmane Sembene pulls off something amazing–an entertaining drama about female genital mutilation. The story is simple: In a small, Muslim village, one woman protects four girls who refuse to be “cut.” The sense of place, the rich tapestry of characters, the urgency of the conflict, and the vibrant, African colors make Moolaadé one of the cinematic treasures of the year.

We Bay Area lefties tend to view the third world as virtuous, pure, and in danger from the corruption of Western, technological civilization. Clearly Sembene thinks otherwise. In this remote corner of the world, everything modern, especially the much coveted radios, open closed minds and instigate change for the better.

On a very different note, the one movie I caught at the Independent Festival was Blackball, aka National Lampoon’s Blackball, probably the least independent film there. It’s a very British snobs vs. slobs comedy about the game of bowls (think bowling, played on a manicured lawn by the insufferably polite). Blackball’s no The Full Monty or Animal House, but it’s a good evening’s entertainment.

Blackball was released in England in 2003, and was recently picked up by National Lampoon for a modest American release. But I caught the only planned screening in the Bay Area. So if you want to see it, you’ll have to get the soon-to-be-released DVD.

In other news, I’ve given the Balboa a permanent spot on the calendar. Run by Gary Meyer of U.C. Theater fame, the Balboa has recently started playing revival and other art-house fare.

On the subject of double bills, Art Rothstein writes that “The Parkway rates an award, even if they charge separate admission, for Beyond the Sea and The Life Aquatic. Perhaps they could play Ray Charles during intermission, singing Drown in My Own Tears, just to see if anyone gets the connection.”

Finally, one last comment on Clash of the Wolves. Reader Derek Boothroyd has informed me that it has been shown the Bay Area in recent years. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened it in 2000.

This Week’s Footnotes

The Pacific Film Archive starts its Preservation Week tonight, with some great shows lined up. Among the most promising are Thursday’s lecture by UCLA’s chief film preservationist Robert Gitt on the History of Color, Stanley Kubrick’s first masterpiece, Paths of Glory on Friday, and a Vitaphone evening (a program of shorts, followed by a recently-rediscovered feature) next Sunday.

Free Pie at the Parkway
This Tuesday is Audience Appreciation night at the Parkway, with a free showing of American Pie (but you’ll still have to buy your own pizza). It’s easy to dismiss a Hollywood-financed horny teenager comedy as commercial schlock (especially one followed by two sequels), but American Pie is an entertaining and reasonably accurate look at young, male sexuality. I know; I’ve been there.

Other Recommendations

  • If you haven’t caught Ray yet, it opens Wednesday at the Lark.

  • Annie Hall is playing today and tomorrow at the Red Vic.

  • The Stanford continues its Marx and Sturges series of double bills, with Duck Soup and The Lady Eve. Comedy doesn’t get any better than that.

Buddhist Report

Americans have a hard time believing that Buddhists make movies. We imagine them sitting under mango trees, contemplating the world and mastering their desires, not scouting locations and sweet-talking investors. But, of course, Buddhists do all of these. And sometimes do them very well.

All of which brings me to the International Buddhist Film Festival. I saw some great films there Saturday, all of which I recommend.

Chasing Buddha is a documentary about Robina Courtin, an Australian-born Buddhist nun now living in the Bay Area. 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. You can still catch Chasing Buddha at the Rafael on February 13, 2:00.

Mujann is not a Disney cartoon set in China. It’s a simple, little film shot in Mongolia about yurt building. This isn’t strict cinema verité, but an ethnographic film in the tradition of Robert (Nanook of the North) Flaherty, showing real people doing what they do, but doing it staged for the camera.

Hometown of the Heart was the real find of the evening. Unfortunately, you may never get a chance to see this 1949 gem–one of only two pre-partition Korean films to survive the war that broke out the following year. Set in a remote monastery, it focuses on a young boy who dreams that the mother who deserted him will one day return. This is no unquestioning celebration of organized Buddhism; the master who runs the monastery is strict, narrow-minded, and unsympathetic. The festival screened a new print made from an old, worn-out source; heavy scratching on the picture and soundtrack make it, literally, a hard movie to watch. No better source is known to exist.

Dead Man is something altogether different. A western staring Johnny Depp, released by Miramax in 1995. The plot, concerning a timid accountant from Cleveland who becomes a wanted outlaw within a day of getting off the train, sounds like a Bob Hope comedy. But Dead Man was written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, which by definition makes it a very weird flick. And it earns its weirdness with the quirky humor and strange occurrences we associate with Jarmusch. The supporting cast includes John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne, and Robert Mitchum. This isn’t one of Jarmusch’s better known films, but it’s one of his best.

It’s also, to my knowledge, the only black and white western since John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962.

But is it Buddhist? Personally, I can’t see it. But then, I’m not a Buddhist. Dead Man screens again, at the Rafael, Saturday, February 12, at 8:45.

Among the movies at the festival that I’m hoping to see are Hi! Dharma, a Korean comedy about gangsters hiding out in a monastery (Wheeler, 2/10, 7:30, Rafael, 2/12, 6:30), Rivers and Tides, the documentary about Andy Goldworthy that I have been failing to see for years (Wheeler, 2/12, 4:00), and the Chinese comedy Shower (Wheeler, 2/13, 6:30).

In other news, an archivist for the Library of Congress contacted me about Clash of the Wolves, the 1925 Rin-Tin-Tin feature I praised on January 2. The LoC has two 35mm prints available, so it would be possible to screen it. Now if only we can get the Castro, Stanford, or some other theater to do just that.

Finally, I’ve added the Lark Theater in Larkspur to the weekly listings. This restored theater from the 1940s shows a combination of current art-house fare and classics.

This Week’s Footnotes:

More David Thomson
He just finished his series at the PFA, but Thomson is already back for an evening of “Clips, commentary and book signing.” He’s presenting “From Jake Gittes to Joe Gillis” (translation: From Sunset Blvd. to Chinatown) Monday night at the Lark.

Dancing at the Lark
The Lark starts a dance movie series Friday. Among the films screening is The Red Shoes, the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger ballet masterpiece from 1948. The melodramatic story is extremely silly, but the dancing is magnificent, and Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor cinematography is among the best. No one understood three-strip Technicolor like Cardiff.

African Films
The Pacific Film Archive starts its African Film Festival this Thursday. I haven’t seen any of things being shown, but one of them is Moolaadé, which has been getting all sorts of praise. Moolaadé got week-long runs recently in San Francisco and Marin, but the East Bay only gives it three days at the Archive.

Not for Kiddies
The Parkway has an adults-only policy for everything except matinees, which may explain why Spongebob Squarepants didn’t do well, there. But this week they act like an adult theater (well, they’re still showing The Incredibles, but that’s a kid’s movie about mid-life crisis). If you’re in the mood for what passed for risqué in 1967, they’re showing Barbarella as part of their Thrillville series Thursday night. And for something stronger, they’ve got a Valentine’s Day party Saturday night with porn legend Nina Hartley appearing both on screen and in person.

Independence Days
The San Francisco Independent Film Festival continues at the Roxie and other locations.

White Kings of Comedy
The Stanford, which is currently dark four nights a week, is running an interesting festival the three nights it’s open. Every weekend it pairs a Marx Brothers movie with a creation of Preston Sturges, the writer-director who made so many of the great comedies of the early 1940’s. It’s a strange combination–really a clash of styles, but it’s two great comedies, well projected, with a good audience, for a reasonable price.