No festivals this week. But I’m placing three Hitchcock 9 films at the bottom of the newsletter.
B+ Flesh and the Devil, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. A silly story, but a sexy one, well-told. I’ll skip the plot, and just tell you that it’s about friendship, young love, uncontrollable lust, and the inherent evil of women acting upon their libido. It’s the sort of vamp picture that went out of style in the early 20′s, but came back to life magnificently here thanks largely to Greta Garbo’s talent and charisma, and the burning passion–both onscreen and off–between her and leading man John Gilbert (director Clarence Brown described it as "kind of embarrassing”). This was only Garbo’s third American film, bit it’s the one that made her stardom. The show also includes Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon comic short subjects. Jon Mirsalis will accompany on the Kurzweil.
A Life of Brian, Castro, Friday. Not quite as funny as Holy Grail (but still hilarious), the Pythons’ second (and last) narrative feature digs a little deeper than its predecessor. Its story of a hapless citizen of Roman-occupied Judea, mistaken for the messiah, satirizes faith, fanaticism (both religious and political), and the human tendency to blindly follow leaders. The religious right attacked it viciously when it came out, which is kind of funny since the movie’s strongest satire is aimed at left-wing radicals. On a double bill with Jesus Christ, Superstar, which I haven’t seen since it was new. Unlike Life of Brian, this one is not intentionally sacrilegious.
B Easy Rider, Castro, Thursday. This iconic film changed Hollywood immensely, and at least temporarily, for the better. Weird, low-budget, and breaking every rule, it nevertheless became a big hit, opening studio doors to young directors and serious art. And although it hasn’t aged well, it’s still worth seeing, if only as a bug in amber–a frozen relic of a lost age. And the two anti-heroes (played by producer Peter Fonda and director Dennis Hopper) make an interesting pair. They’re totally counterculture on the outside, yet irredeemably materialistic at their core. Fonda’s character is smarter and more sensitive, and eventually senses that there’s something wrong with their values. But Hopper’s character is simply an annoying jerk. I’m pretty sure that was intentional. For more on Easy Rider, see America Lost & Found: The BBS Story. On a double bill with Scarecrow, one of those artistic films that Easy Rider made possible. I haven’t seen this one since it was new; I liked it then.
A+ The Godfather, Part II, Castro, Sunday. By juxtaposing the rise of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando in the first film, a young Robert De Niro here) with the moral fall of his son Michael (Al Pacino again), Mario Puzo and Francis Coppola show us the long-term effects of what seemed like a good idea at the time. De Niro plays young Vito as a loving family man who cares only for his wife and children, and turns to crime to better support them. But in Michael, consolidating his empire some thirty years later, we see the ultimate disastrous effects of that decision. Pacino plays him as a tragic monster who senses his own emptiness. On a double bill with Michael Mann’s Heat, which didn’t impress me as much as it impressed so many other people.
A Dr. Strangelove, Castro, Wednesday. A psychotic general named 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 (several played by Peter Sellers) are slightly more competent than 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. On a double bill with another, even stranger atomic-themed black comedy from the ’60s, The Bed Sitting Room.
A+ North by Northwest, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00 (doors open 7:00). Alfred Hitchcock’s light masterpiece, not as thoughtful as Rear Window or Notorious, but more entertaining than both of them combined. 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 chased from New York to Mount Rushmore. On the bright side , he gets to spend some quality time with a very glamorous Eva Marie Saint (danger has its rewards).
A Pulp Fiction, various CineMark theaters, Sunday afternoon and Wednesday; Kabuki, Thursday. Quentin Tarantino achieved cult status by writing and directing this witty mesh of interrelated stories involving talkative killers, a crooked boxer, romantic armed robbers, and a former POW who hid a watch in a very uncomfortable place. Tarantino entertainingly plays with dialog, story-telling techniques, non-linear time, and any sense the audience may have of right and wrong.
B+ Fight Club, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight. This is one strange and disturbing flick. Edward Norton wants to be Brad Pitt. Who wouldn’t? Pitt’s a free-spirited kind of guy and a real man. Besides, he’s shagging Helena Bonham Carter (who plays an American, and would therefore never use the verb shag). On the other hand, he just might be a fascist. Or maybe…better not give away the strangest plot twist this side of Psycho and Bambi, even if it strains more credibility than a Fox News commentary. And Bonham Carter gets to say the most shocking and hilariously obscene line in Hollywood history.
D+ Sin City, New Parkway, Thursday. Graphic artist Frank Miller and filmmaker Robert Rodriguez collaborated on this visually stunning, technically cutting edge, but ultimately empty mishmash. In Miller’s world (the film is based on his graphic novel), every man is a killer, and every woman a stripper or a whore. Not that Sin City completely lacks heroes, it’s just that those heroes are violent vigilantes who don’t hesitate to torture people they don’t like. The result is grim, joyless, humorless, sexless (despite all the scantily-clad beauties), and totally disconnected from even the worst of the real world. But the mixture of black and white and color is striking.
All films screening at the Pacific Film Archive, with piano accompaniment by Judith Rosenberg on piano.
B+ Blackmail, Friday, 7:00. A beautiful young woman ditches her boyfriend (a Scotland Yard detective), flirts with an artist, then kills him in self-defense. The next morning she’s at the mercy of a blackmailer. Alfred Hitchcock’s second thriller already shows touches of the master. The heroine’s night wanderings after the incident, her reaction to casual gossip about the murder, and the blackmailer’s breakfast prove that even this early, Hitchcock could keep us on the edge of our seats. A few early scenes go on too long, but this is still the Master in training. The ending is morally ambiguous. And let’s not forget the painting of the jester with the menacing laugh. Blackmail was made as both a silent film and a talkie; the PFA is screening the superior silent version. For more on the film, see Hitchcock 9 Report, Part 1: Blackmail.
B Champagne, Wednesday, 7:00. With it’s ditzy heiress ingénue, romantic plot, broad humor, and class consciousness, this Hitchcock silent has all the ingredients of a screwball comedy except sparkling dialog. I won’t go into plot details, but the story goes from an ocean liner to Paris to a very wild nightclub. Betty Balfour is as bubbly as the title drink in the lead role. She’s rich, wild, and spoiled, but her love life and financial security teeter and tumble over the course of the story. A bit slow at times, it’s overall quite fun. But I couldn’t help wondering what Howard Hawks could have done with the story a decade later.
D Downhill, Saturday, 6:15. This moralistic melodrama seems intent to teach us that it’s horrible to be irresistible to women, that people born wealthy should not have to work for a living, and that you shouldn’t marry someone who wants your money, especially if they’re smarter than you and has an ex hanging around. Overwrought and essentially pointless,Downhill is also dreary, obvious, humorless, and dull.