Projecting Buddha

What’s the sound of one audience clapping?

Starting February 14, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts screens 12 films in a series titled Projecting Buddha. Hosted by the International Buddhist Film Festival, The movies are intended to complement the current YBCA exhibition, The Missing Peace: Artists Consider the Dalai Lama. The series features, according to the press release, “the Dalai Lama, Martin Scorsese, Thich Nhat Hanh, John Giorno, Sakyong Mipham, Noah Levine, Robina Courtin, Bobby Hill.

I’ve seen two of the films. The documentary Chasing Buddha introduces you to Robina Courtin, an Australian-born Buddhist nun now living in the Bay Area (or at least living here when the movie was made). 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. This 52-minute semi-feature plays on Sunday, February 17, 2:00, with the short subject “Satya: A Prayer for the Enemy.

I’ve also seen the King of the Hill episode “Won’t You Pimai Neighbor.” It’s funny, and it’s screening Sunday, February 24, with the short feature Compassion In Exile.

Projecting Buddha runs through March 6, Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons.

Freeway Philharmonic

My wife and I went to the Cerrito last night for a screening of Freeway Philharmonic, a documentary about Bay Area classical musicians who drive all over Northern California to scratch out a living playing in multiple orchestras. Filmmakers Tal Skloot and Steven Baigel profile seven such musicians, although there are many more.

The capacity audience appeared to be mostly musicians and at least one musician’s spouse. That would be me, as my wife plays viola professionally. She seemed to know half the audience, including several of the musicians profiled in the film. In fact, one of Freeway Philharmonic‘s subjects is our daughter’s bassoon teacher.

At 55 minutes, Freeway Philharmonic isn’t quite feature length, but it’s the right length for the story Skloot and Baigel have to tell. We meet the musicians, get to know their lives, their dreams, and their frustrations. Two of them get married, another two–already married–contemplate parenthood. One injures her hand and worries if that will destroy her career. And we come to understand the passion, dedication, and struggle involved in an artistic career.

Good music, too.

Noir City and Other Screenings

Noir City opens Friday night at the Castro and plays through the week (and well into the next one), and that’s worth mentioning on its own, even if there isn’t much there I’ve seen or even heard of. But isn’t that what makes it special?

DOUBLE FEATURE: The Lady Vanishes (1938) & Young and Innocent, Stanford, Friday through Monday. The best (and almost the last) film Alfred Hitchcock made in England before jumping the pond, The Lady Vanishes stands among his best. This is Hitchcock light–starting out as a gentle comedy and slowly building suspense, but never taking itself seriously. Only North by Northwest is more enjoyable. He also made Young and Innocent in England, but he didn’t do near as good a job. It has one fantastic shot, but is otherwise just the Master of Suspense going through the motions.

The Black Pirate, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Douglas Fairbanks’ pirate swashbuckler isn’t the best of his work, but it’s fun. People mainly remember it for one spectacular stunt–Fairbanks sliding down a sail with a knife (it was recreated in the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie)–and the color. This was one of the first features, and the first really big one, shot entirely in two-color Technicolor. As I write this, I have no information about the print, but I do know that Bruce Loeb, rather than the previously-announced Jon Mirsalis, will provide piano accompaniment.

Gun Crazy, Castro, Saturday. It’s been too long since I’ve seen this low-budget thriller, said to be inspired by the story of Bonnie and Clyde. And I mean “too long” in both senses of the term: It’s been so many years I don’t trust my memory enough to give it a recommendation, and I shouldn’t go so long without seeing such a good movie again. The plot concerns two sharpshooters who fall in love and go on a crime spree, despite the man’s abhorrence to turning his gone on any living thing. One of the many films from the 1950s written by the then-blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (original prints didn’t credit him; modern ones do).

Bamako, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:30. Better in parts than as a whole, Bamako mixes interesting vignettes of life in modern Africa with a preachy approach to its subject matter that wears you down. The bizarre concept puts the World Bank on trial, complete with formal court hearings, in a residential courtyard in Bamako, Mali. Around the trial, life goes on, and that life is the best part of the film. But as an attack on global economic policy, it’s more of a treatise than a motion picture, explaining what the problem is rather than showing you or involving you emotionally. Part of the PFA’s African Film Festival.

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival

The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival comes to the Bay Area again in February with screenings at the Pacific Film Archive and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. This is a modest festival: Only nine films (including shorts) presented in 12 screenings. All of the films are documentaries.

So far, I’ve seen one of them, Strange Culture, which was shown last year at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and then received a limited theatrical release. I liked the movie, and gave it a B. Click here for my review.

Other films deal with global warming, Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, and violence in the Congo.

Yesterday’s News

Quite a day. The Academy announces the Oscar nominations, and Heath Ledger dies in what looks like a suicide.

I first saw Ledger in The Patriot and Monster’s Ball. Both performances impressed me, but they left me wondering if I would ever see this young man alive in a final fade-out. I finally did, of course, in Brokeback Mountain; alive, but very sad, standing both literally and figuratively in a closet. I finally saw him in a happy ending with Casanova.

But there was no happy ending for Ledger himself. We still don’t know why.

Should we care more about Ledger than about the many other people who must have died before their time that day–including, I’m sure, others who left young children behind? I suppose not. Yet we do, because we’ve all lost something: the chance to watch a talented young artist mature and improve with age.

And what about the Oscar nominations?

I have yet to see There Will Be Blood, which seems to have momentum behind it. I’ll have to rectify that. I liked the other four Best Picture nominees, although only Juno made my top ten (and topped it). I’m rooting for Juno, but I don’t think it will win. It’s not the sort of movie that does.

On the animation front, I loved both Persepolis and Ratatouille, although I don’t think of Persepolisas a 2007 film because it didn’t open in the Bay Area before 2008. And, of course, I’m hoping No End in Sight makes Best Feature-Length Documentary.

But we’ll have to wait until February 24 to answer the big question: What is an Oscar ceremony like during a writer’s strike?

Everything Good This Week

Dr. Strangelove, Cerrito, Thursday, 9:15. 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 once were. Thank heaven we no longer have idiots like those running the country! It’s also very funny. A benefit for Theater Engage.

Notorious, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. One of Hitchcock’s best. In order to prove her patriotism, scandal-ridden Ingrid Bergman seduces, beds, and marries Claude Rains’ Nazi industrialist, while true love Cary Grant grimly watches. Sexy, romantic, thought-provoking, and scary enough to shorten your fingernails. On a double bill with The Philadelphia Story, a romantic comedy, also starring Grant, that I haven’t seen in a great many years.

The Magic of Georges Méliès, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 3:00. One could reasonably call this French magician the first artist of the cinema. His “trick” films certainly introduced the concept of what we now call special effects, and they’re amongst the earliest motion pictures to retain their intrinsic value as entertainment (as opposed to mere historical interest). The matinee will screen seven of his shorts, including his best-known movie, “A Trip to the Moon.” Part of the PFA’s ongoing series of Movie Matinees for All Ages.

The Violin, Roxie, Shattuck, ongoing. Francisco Vargas’ film of repression and rebellion opens with a brutal scene of torture and rape conducted by soldiers against their helpless, bound victims. Don’t let the title deceive you; The Violin is not a musical. In telling us the story of an old farmer and violinist (Ángel Tavira) secretly active in rebellion, Vargas denies us the comforts of conventional entertainment. The grainy black-and-white photography and the emphasis on motion and close-ups give The Violin an almost unbearable urgency. We don’t get to revel in the heroes’ victories, and laughter breaks the tension only once in this remarkable film. Click here for my full review.


Another big film festival on the way. IndieFest (AKA, The Tenth Annual San Francisco Independent Film Festival) opens February 7 and plays through the 20th. Venues include the Castro, the Roxie, and the Victoria Theater.

It starts on Thursday the 7th at the Castro (all festivals start on a Thursday night at the Castro…it’s the law) with Shotgun Stories, the story of a modern-day rural family feud, and ends nearly two weeks later with Gus Van Sant’s latest work, Paranoid Park.

Van Sant’s contribution is the only film I’ve heard of, and I’ve yet to see any of them (that is sort of the point). Among the more curious-sounding titles on the schedule are Sexina: Popstar, P.I., Driving To Zigzigland, and Alligator On the Zipper. There’s also an Armenian “screwball” comedy called A Big Story in a Small City. Sounds good.