Adulation by the Bay

I don’t know if the pen is mightier than the sword, but I’ve got a book on my desk that could make a pretty lethal club. It’s called Cinema by the Bay, by Sheerly Avni, and it’s a coffee table book for very sturdy coffee tables. The sucker is heavy.

As the first title with the new George Lucas Books imprint, Cinema by the Bay looks at film directors and movie studios that have made their home in the Bay Area–Coppola, Saul Zaentz, Pixar, and Mr. Lucas, himself. The book limits itself to those who made their mark here after 1970. Only Michael Sragow’s introduction bothers with earlier artists who worked in or near San Francisco–obscure names like Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock.

The heavy weight comes from the large format, hard cover, and thick, glossy pages. This is book as presentation; a beautiful way to show off a large collection of photographs, all lovingly reproduced.

But Avni’s text is embarrassingly lightweight. As one would expect from a George Lucas book, it has nothing but praise for the creator of Jar Jar Binks. She blames THX 1138’s commercial failure on “the Hollywood moneymen [who] threw their hands up at the future director of the blockbuster Star Wars series,” without considering that to many people’s minds, then and now, her boss’ first film is an alienating bore. Howard the Duck is scarcely mentioned.

Not that the book is dedicated to the deification of George Lucas. Every filmmaker profiled is a genius, and every Bay Area studio a patron of the arts that somehow manages to turn a profit.

In other words, this is a great book to look at, but a disappointment to read.

Most of the following films were not made in the Bay Area, but they are being shown here this coming week. None are disappointments.

Recommended: V For Vendetta, Elmwood, ongoing. Stunningly subversive for a big-budget Hollywood explosion movie, V For Vendetta celebrates rebellion against an oppressive, ultra-Christian government that feeds on hatred of Muslims and homosexuals. It works as an escapist fantasy action flick and as a call to arms, but when its hero crosses the line (and he does), it forces you to wonder just what is justified in the fight against tyranny.

Recommended: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Castro, opens Friday for a one-week engagement. 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. What else can I say? If you object to mindless, escapist action flicks on principle, you won’t see it anyway. If you don’t, you already know it’s wonderful. The Castro promises a new 35mm print.

Recommended, with Reservations: Frankenstein(1931), Balboa, Saturday. Dr. Frankenstein did more than create a monster. He turned James Whale into a top director and Boris Karloff into a major star (no mean feat since Karloff neither spoke in the film nor received screen credit). Several individual scenes are masterpieces of mood, horror, and crossed sympathies, but there’s so little story that the movie feels like a warm-up for the infinitely superior sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. As part of its Boris Karloffseries, the Balboa will screen Frankenstein on a double-bill with The Black Room.

Recommended: Bride of Frankenstein, Balboa, Sunday. You spend more time scared for the monster than of it in James Whales’ masterpiece. Boris Karloff plays him as a child in a too-large body, the ultimate outcast torn between his need for love and his anger at the society that’s rejected him. If the blind hermit sequence doesn’t bring tears, you’re either dead, too cynical, or have seen Young Frankenstein’s parody of this scene once too often. With Colin Clive as the not-so-good doctor, Ernest Thesiger in a delightfully over-the-top performance as an even madder scientist, and Elsa Lanchester as both Mary Shelley and the monster’s mate (technically speaking, Valerie Hobson is the real Bride of Frankenstein). On a double-bill with The Old Dark House as part of the Balboa’s Boris Karloffseries.

Recommended: Scarface (1932), Balboa, Monday. When we think of pre-code gangster movies, we think of Warner Brothers. But independent producer Howard Hughes made the best of them–or at least he paid writer Ben Hecht and director Howard Hawks to make it. Paul Muni asks for no sympathy, but he’s always watchable as a young thug working his way up, then down, the ladder of criminal success. Other standouts include George Raft as his sidekick and Ann Dvorak as the sister he loves a little too much. Scarface is an odd choice for a Boris Karloff series, as Karloff has just a bit part, but that’s how the Balboa is showing it, on a double-bill with Graft.