Sunday Docs at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

I went to the Castro Sunday afternoon to catch two documentaries screening at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

It wasn’t until Monday before I realized what they had in common. Both centered on a very old person.

A German Life

Brunhilde Pomsel, 103 when she was interviewed for this film, worked as a secretary and stenographer for Joseph Goebbels during World War II. She did not believe in Nazi ideology, but she joined the party in 1933 because it seemed good for her career. At that time, her best friend was Jewish. After the war, she spent five years in a Soviet prison.

Clearly, she carries a lot of guilt. But she also carries a lot of denial.

The film’s four directors shot these interviews in black and white extreme close-up, against a black background. The audience is not allowed to see anything except her wrinkled face. We never hear the voices of the people interviewing her.

The documentary doesn’t always show her face. It often cuts to clips and outtakes from American, German, and Soviet propaganda films–including some of the most horrifying Holocaust footage I’ve ever seen.

I found the film troubling and frightening. With its story of a people giving up their freedom and basic humanity for a demigod, I couldn’t get thoughts of Donald Trump out of my mind.

I give it an A-.

After the film, two of the four directors came on stage for Q&A. Some highlights, paraphrased from my notes:

  • When you made the film, did you know how timely it would be? (This question got huge applause.) Europe is shifting to the right, and it’s happening here as well.
  • Because of her age, we never knew how long we could interview her.
  • Was she truthful? Yes. She stuck to her own experiences. For instance, she didn’t tell us how Goebel’s children died (they were poisoned by their mother), she told us how she found out about it.
  • Is she still alive, and has she seen the film? She’s still alive at 105. She saw the film. She found it interesting to “look at your life and see all the things you did wrong.”
  • During the interview, she went through her whole life, and it triggered something every day. We repeated a lot of questions over and over. In the end she gave completely different answers. There was a process in her.
  • It’s not so much about her personal guilt, but about human nature.
  • Do you think she’s a criminal? She’s guilty, yes, of course.

A German Life will play one more time in the Festival, at Oakland’s Piedmont Theatre, Sunday, August 7, at 2:15.

Freedom of Speech Award: Norman Lear

Every year, the Jewish Film Festival hands out an award to someone who has fought for our First Amendment rights. This year, the Freedom of Speech Award went to television producer Norman Lear.

Lear isn’t quite as old as Brunhilde Pomsel, but he’s turning 94 this week, and is still working. He’s recently completed his memoirs, and is working on a new TV show for Netflix.

Before bringing Lear up on stage for an interview, we were treated to a screening of the new documentary, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. The film is on the Festival’s Hold Review List, which means for the time being, I have to keep my review short. Here it goes:

In the 1970s, Norman Lear changed the face of television with controversial sitcoms like All in the Family and The Jeffersons, then became a full-time political activist creating the organization People for the American Way. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have created a warm, sympathetic, and funny documentary about Lear. Of course it’s funny; comedy is his lifelong trade. But parts of the story felt incomplete, such as a happy marriage hits trouble and then…he was married to someone else.

I give it a B+.

After the film, Lear and former SFJFF Executive Director Peter Stein came on stage for an interview. Some paraphrased highlights:

  • What is it like to watch a form of you in this documentary? All my life I’ve been an audience member. I sit down to what I’m watching and say “Take me. I’m yours.”
  • I think of Donald Trump as the middle finger of America’s right hand. What I mean is that the man is the fool he is, the asshole he is, and I believe that the American people understand this.

This was followed by an audience Q&A. Unfortunately, as soon as Lear answered an audience question, Stein would ask another, related question, eating up time that should have been used for more audience participation.

  • How did you get Sammy Davis Jr. on All in the Family? I met him when I worked with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. He begged to be on the show.
  • How you get your sense of comedy? If your father goes to jail when you’re nine years of age, and a guy is buying your father’s favorite chair, and the guy says “Well Norman, you’re the man of the house now,” you understand the foolishness of the human condition.
  • Shooting sitcoms in front of a live audience? I love performing with a live audience. If the audience didn’t laugh, that was it. We didn’t use a laugh track.
  • I created Archie Bunker on paper, but I never saw the real Archie Bunker until I saw Carroll O’Connor. Nobody could write the Archie-isms like he could speak them.
  • On Jean Stapleton: She was always where she was. We’d ask What would Jesus do. That’s how we wrote Edith.

For some strange reason, the Festival had placed a painting on a stand on the stage. Near the end of the Q&A, it collapsed. Lear proclaimed “Now that’s funny!” He got a big laugh on that one.

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You will screen one more time in the Festival, at the Rafael, Sunday, August 7, at 2:10. But it will screen three more times at the Rafael that week–not connected with the Festival. PBS will eventually broadcast it as part of the American Masters series.

Adapting Shakespeare: Ran and Chimes at Midnight

400 years after his death, people still love William Shakespeare. I can think of no other story teller whose works have remained popular so long. His talent, obviously, has a lot to do with it. But so is his adaptability. His plays, written with almost no stage directions, give actors and directors countless interpretations.

Most Shakespeare productions, either on stage or in film, stay loyal to his work. A production of Hamlet may be shortened, and set in a time and place that the Bard of Avon could never imagine. But the dialog would all come from Hamlet.

But some imaginative directors can take a Shakespeare play–or five of them–and create something totally new.

Within a few days of each other at the Pacific Film Archive, I caught two of the most imaginative, and two of the best, Shakespeare adaptations ever recorded on film. Not coincidentally, they were made by two of the 20th century’s greatest filmmakers: Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa.

The PFA didn’t screen these films as part of a Shakespeare series. They were just classic films that had recently received beautiful, new digital restorations. Both films were screened off 4K DCPs.

Chimes at Midnight

Orson Welles stuck almost entirely to Shakespeare’s language in his 1966 retelling of the Falstaff story. But he didn’t stick to one particular work. The dialog comes from five separate plays.

Most of Chimes at Midnight comes from the plays Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2, with a smattering of dialog from Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Winsor. From these plays, it tells the tragi-comic story of Sir John Falstaff and his doomed friendship with Prince Hal–the future King Henry V.

Years before I knew that this film existed, I wanted someone would make it. Henry IV, Part 1 is my favorite Shakespeare play. I never cared much for Part 2, except for the brilliant ending that closes the story much better than anything in Part 1. Welles combined the two plays to use the best from each of them.

Quick rundown on the story: King Henry IV (John Gielgud), struggles with a rebellion and his own guilt in the overthrow and murder of Richard II. He also worries about his oldest son, Hal (Keith Baxter), who’s spending his time drinking, carousing, and whoring with a bunch of lowlifes led by a fat, drunken, lying knave named Sir John Falstaff (Welles). Inevitably, Hal will have to set aside his wild ways and take on his royal responsibilities.

It would be tough to find a more perfect actor to play Falstaff than Orson Welles. He was extremely overweight by the 1960s, and yet he still had that star charisma. His Falstaff is rowdy, tricky, mostly joyful, often funny, and inevitably heading for disaster. Like Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, he’s a good man with a tragic flaw. But his flaw is his zest for life.

The cast also includes Jeanne Moreau, Fernando Rey, Margaret Rutherford, and Ralph Richardson’s voice narrating from Holinshed’s Chronicles.

As is true with so much of Welles’ work, Chimes at Midnight was made with very little money. Shot in Spain in black and white, it’s a remarkably beautiful film for its budget. Welles and his collaborators create a battle with a smattering of extras, shoot the castle scenes in old, crumbling ruins, and re-imagine the ultimate Merry Olde England pub and bawdy house.

But the low budget shows itself in the soundtrack. Almost all of the dialog had to be post-dubbed after the shooting–and not always with the same actor who had played the role onscreen. The lips don’t always match, and the sound is often too clean for the onscreen environment. I found this a big problem early on. Eventually, I got used to it.

I might not have gotten used to it if it wasn’t otherwise such an excellent film.

Ran

William Shakespeare created his saddest, most hopeless tragedy in King Lear. And Akira Kurosawa loosely adapted it in his saddest, most hopeless film, Ran.

Kurosawa altered the story considerably. In the most obvious change, the three daughters become three sons. When your story is set in 16th-century Japan, giving land and castles to daughters would have been unthinkable.

But another alteration takes Ran into a deeper space than Lear. Kurosawa tells us something about the aging warlord’s past. The Lear figure Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) is now a senile old man, but was once a cruel and fearsome warrior. He attacked and destroyed his neighbors without pity, killing his rivals, forcing their daughters into marriage, and blinding children who might one day want revenge.

He’s carrying some very bad karma, and he will pay for that karma before the film ends. So will his sons–two of which are as bad as he used to be. Many innocent people will suffer as well. Kurosawa shows no optimism in Ran. The evil will pay for their sins, but that’s of little comfort to their victims. (The title, Ran, loosely translates into English as chaos.)

While turning Lear’s two evil daughters into evil sons, Kurosawa also created one of cinema’s great villainesses in the oldest brother’s wife (Mieko Harada). Seemingly the proper Japanese high-born wife, she manipulates her husband and, after his death, her brother-in-law in her desire to destroy Hidetora’s family. We understand her reasons; Hidetora killed her family and forced her into marriage, but she doesn’t care how many good people must die for her vengeance.

Kurosawa and his collaborators created a stunningly beautiful film in Ran, but it’s often a strangely ugly beauty. The exceptionally gory battle scenes run with a bright red, and a sense of unnecessary yet inevitable death. A castle siege, with no sound except haunting music, may be the best medieval battle scene ever filmed.

I discussed Ran at greater length in 2010–also after a PFA screening. It was screened then off a new 35mm print which I described at the time as “beautiful.” Was that better than the new DCP? How should I know; that was six years ago. But I’d call the digital version beautiful, as well.

Late Spring at the Pacific Film Archive

As people grow, the way they relate to their family inevitably changes. Some fight the change, and others accept it.

I went to the Pacific Film Archive Wednesday night to see Yasujirô Ozu’s 1949 masterpiece, Late Spring, about a young woman resisting change. She wants to stay with her widowed father, but he senses that it’s time for her to make a life without him.

Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is 27, and seems completely happy living with and taking care of her father (Chishû Ryû). No other actor in the history of cinema could radiate kindness and joy like Hara, and she makes us know with absolutely certainty that she’s contented in her life.

But her father worries about her. Most women her age are married. If things don’t change soon, she will be lonely after he’s gone. So, with the help of friends and family, he searches for a suitable husband and–with far more difficulty–convince her to marry.

Today, a film about a woman being pressured into marriage would carry a strong feminist message: A woman can lead a full and happy life without being chained to a man. I’m not entirely sure if Ozu felt that way when he made Late Spring. Probably not, but the film actually works within that point of view. After all, she doesn’t meet that perfect man. But Ozu never looks down on the father and the others trying to bring Noriko to the alter. They’re clearly acting on what they believe are her best interests.

Besides, Noriko is already chained to a man she loves–her father.

Noriko’s reluctance to change makes her judgmental of change in others–a surprising character trait on someone so warm and friendly. She calls a divorced male friend “dirty” (with a smile) because he remarried.

Late Spring is shot and edited in Ozu’s patented simple, elegant style. Especially in interiors, he kept the camera low–only a few inches from the ground–and rarely moved it. You take in the room and see how everyone reacts to each other.

Ozu’s slow editing pace helps bring you into the world of the characters. He shows us a tea ceremony, trolley rides, Tokyo and rural streets, and a good bit of a Noh play. As an American born in the second half of the 20th century, I found these moments fascinating and enlightening. But I couldn’t help wondering how these scenes may have effected Late Spring‘s intended audience. For them, much of this must have felt like boring old life.

While Ozu’s camera stays on day-to-day life, much of the story is concealed–another common part of Ozu’s style. For instance, we never see the man everyone is pressuring Noriko to marry.

Late Spring has recently benefited from a new 4K restoration, and the PFA screened it off a 4K DCP. I’m getting a little tired of praising the latest 4K restoration; starting with Children of Paradise in 2012, they’ve all been gorgeous. Late Spring’s restoration had a few washed out moments, but other than that, it looked great.

Late Spring will screen again on Sunday, July 17, 5:00.

3 Views of America: What I saw in theaters this weekend

I saw three movies in theaters this weekend.

Free State of Jones at the Elmwood

Being a history buff, and particularly one interested in the Civil War and reconstruction, I couldn’t help rushing out to see Gary Ross’ Free State of Jones. I caught it at the Elmwood.

Matthew McConaughey stars as an actual historical figure, Newton Knight, a Confederate Army deserter who led a band of escaped slaves and other discontents. They fought the Confederacy and successfully held considerable land. After the war, he supported reconstruction and tried to help the freedmen gain their rightful place in society.

It’s an interesting piece of history, and one that Americans should know something about. What’s more, it makes for an exciting movie. (I don’t know to what degree the movie is historically accurate. I suspect not much.) It can’t help being something of a white savior movie, but that flaw really couldn’t be avoided in a story that really needed to be told.

I give it a B.

I’ve been to the Elmwood many times, but always for something showing in the theater’s big, downstairs auditorium. This time, Jones played in one of the two small, upstairs auditoriums. It was horrible. The front row was way too far back, and there was no way to get close enough to the screen.

Even worse, a low wall in front of the front row was much too close for comfort. I had to tuck my legs under the seat. My back was sore at the end of the movie. Some low chairs, or even bing bang chairs, in the front would help.

Next time something I want to see is at the Elmwood, I’ll make sure it’s screening downstairs before I go.

Scarlet Letter at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum

Sunday was the last day of the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, and the 1926 version of The Scarlet Letter was the final movie of the day. I introduced the film, explaining how star Lillian Gish pushed to get the film made despite censorship issues.

In case you don’t remember reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel in High School, it’s set in 17th century Puritan Massachusetts. Hester Prynne, whose husband disappeared years ago, has a baby out of wedlock and suffers from religious intolerance.

The film, which is very much the MGM version, emphasizes the romance between Hester and her lover, the church minister Arthur Dimmesdale. But unlike the universally reviled Demi Moore version, MGM kept the tragic ending. It’s a powerful story, well-told. I give it an A-.

The 16mm print screened was washed out and fuzzy. As I have never seen a good print of this film; I suspect that nothing better is available.

Bruce Loeb did a wonderful job on piano. His music enhanced the emotions onscreen and deepened the story.

The Lusty Men at the Pacific Film Archive

Nicholas Ray examines masculinity in this modern western drama set in the world of the rodeo. The lusty men of the title are irresponsible, bad with money, and courageous to the point of stupidity. The women who love them suffer for it.

The Lusty Men is not, as I had assumed, about a love triangle. At least not in the traditional sense. Yes, it’s about two men and one woman, but the men don’t compete for the woman. It’s the wife who must compete against her husband’s new bromance.

Robert Mitchum stars as Jeff McCloud, a former star of the rodeo circuit with one too many injuries. He latches onto the happily-married Wes and Louise (Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward). Wes is a cowhand, working for someone else, and badly wanting enough to buy his own place. The rodeo promises quick, easy, yet dangerous cash, and Jeff offers to mender him. Wes eagerly jumps into the world of constant travel, heavy drinking, poker, bar fights, and the adrenaline rush of riding a wild horse or (much worse) bull. Louise is pulled into it far more reluctantly.

The rodeo industry clearly approved of this film’s production–although I can’t help wondering if they had read the script. The film contains a good deal of actual rodeo footage. Much of this footage, accompanied by on- and off-screen announcers, celebrate the real cowboys on the real horses and bulls we’re looking at. One problem: This real-live footage didn’t match well with the footage shot for the film. It was grainier and slightly out of focus.

I give The Lusty Men an A-.

The PFA screened a brand-new 35mm print (I’m delighted to know that Warner Brothers is still making them). For the most part, it was beautiful, and did service to Lee Garmes’ moody black and white photography. The occasional scratches were, I assume, from the source material.

Friday at the PFA

I caught two very different films, from two very different series, at the Pacific Film Archive Friday night. Both films were shown without an introduction.

Bachelor’s Affairs

This was the second screening of the UCLA Festival of Preservation 2016 series, and the first in that series that I was able to attend.

Before the feature, we were treated to a Vitaphone short from 1929, Me and the Boys. Like all early Vitaphone shorts, it was basically a vaudeville act performed in a movie studio—in this case, a song. I found it moderately entertaining. The print was tinted yellow; like the silents they helped replace, Vitaphone pictures were often tinted. The preservation was clearly made from a print that suffered a lot of nitrate decomposition.

The feature looked much better. And while I wouldn’t list this 1932 marriage farce among the great pre-code comedies, it was fun. Adolphe Menjou starred as a middle-aged millionaire who unwisely marries a young blonde who’s being pushed into the marriage by her older sister. She wants to party and, we assume, sleep with younger men. He’s too old for this lifestyle. Meanwhile, his secretary really loves him.

The rumba dance sequence was very funny, and most of it proved entertaining. And at 64 minutes, it was pleasingly short. I give it a B.

Like everything in this UCLA series, the film is screened in 35mm instead of off of a DCP. These films have only been preserved, not restored. Preserving a film is still an analog, film-based process. You make a new negative from the best source you have. Restoration, where you try to make the best-possible recreation of the film, has become a digital process and with good reason.

These films either don’t need a full restoration (Bachelor’s Affairs certainly didn’t), or aren’t important enough for the expense (probably the case with Me and the Boys).

The Wrong Move

I’m beginning to see why the PFA called this series Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road. This is the second film in the series that I’ve caught, and it’s the second road movie.

The Wrong Move is a more even film than Kings of the Road. It lacks the brilliant scenes that made Kings so memorable. On the other hand, at 103 minutes, it didn’t sag in places like the other film did.

The film looks at a temporary family that creates itself on the road. It’s told through the eyes of Wilhelm (Rüdiger Vogler). He wants to be a writer, but he worries that he’s too emotionally remote to be a good one. And he’s probably right. He’s a pretty cold guy.

He sets out to see Germany on train, and becomes the nucleus of a group of travelers. There’s the former Nazi officer filled with guilt (Hans Christian Blech), the teenage girl who never talks and develops a crush on Wilhelm (Nastassja Kinski in her first screen role), a beautiful blonde who might be an actress (Hanna Schygulla), and the bad poet comedy relief (Peter Kern). They travel together for a while, and then go their separate ways.

These people interact with each other in some intriguing ways, but they learn very little on the trip. I give this one a B, too.

As with everything in this series, The Wrong Move recently received a 4K digital restoration. It was screened off a DCP.

More on the new PFA Theater

Before the first film, I walked up to the back of the theater, and took some photos:

Kings of the Road at the PFA

I caught Kings of the Road Friday night at the Pacific Film Archive. It was the opening show of the series Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road. Like most of the films in this long series (it plays through July), Kings is the beneficiary of a recent 4K restoration.

Therefore, the PFA projected the 1976, black-and-white, 176-minute non-epic digitally from a DCP. That’s sort of ironic, since Kings of the Road is a film very much in love with the projection of 35mm film.

But then, on the other hand, it comes down pretty heavily on the scourge of bad projection.

As the name suggests, it’s a road movie. Two young men, both travelers, meet accidentally and decide to travel together. That’s basically the story. They talk, they see things, they listen to popular music and discuss the English lyrics (remember, this is a German film), they go their separate ways, they get back together, and they split again.

Very little of what you’d expect in a road movie happens here. They don’t run into trouble with bigots or the law. They don’t commit fun crimes. They don’t get laid (although one comes close).

Laid-back hippy-like Bruno (Rüdiger Vogler) travels to earn a living, and his large bus is his home. He repairs projectors in small-town movie theaters, and is quite a good projectionist himself. This is where the film’s love of 35mm, and its critique of bad projection, comes in. In one scene, disgusted by a dark and badly-framed image, he goes to the booth to complain. He finds the projectionist masturbating. (The film has a lot of full-frontal male nudity.)

Robert (Hanns Zischler) is more closed in. He’s clearly running from something, or to something. We first see him driving his Volkswagen into a lake. He’s a restless, frequently unhappy man, but he’s able to have moments of joy.

Wenders fills Kings of the Road with many wonderful and moving moments. Bruno flirts with a woman running a movie theater that’s been reduced to showing porn. Robert comforts a man whose wife just died in a car crash. And the two men, behind a backlit movie screen that only shows their silhouettes, improvise a very funny slapstick routine for the benefit of children waiting to see a movie.

As wonderful as it often is, Kings of the Road doesn’t have enough good scenes to fill out the three hours of its runtime. It could easily be cut by a third and be a better film. That’s why, despite the many masterful scenes, I can only give it a B+.

The new restoration looks great.

Big and shallow fun in Captain America: Civil War

After the San Francisco International Film Festival, I like to clear my palette with a totally escapist, Hollywood-style explosion movie. So Tuesday night, my wife and I saw Captain America: Civil War. And we even saw it in 3D.

I enjoyed it. Well, sort of. I’m giving it a B-.

In case you make a point of ignoring the biggest blockbusters, Marvel Comics has become the biggest studio in Hollywood, cranking out action-and-effects laden superhero movies that a large portion of our population can’t go without. This particular slice of what’s called The Marvel Universe involves The Avengers, a misfit group of superheroes (or “enhanced humans”) that fight evil together when they’re not arguing or fighting evil in their own movies.

While saving the world, The Avengers accidentally kill a few innocent bystanders (it’s really amazing that this doesn’t happen more often). So the governments of the world insist these loose cannons will now only fight evil when the United Nations asks them to. About half of them, led by Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), agree. But the other half, led by Captain America (Chris Evans) refuse.

Look at the movie’s title, and you’ll know what side the story falls on.

To the screenwriters’ credit (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, from a graphic novel by Mark Millar), Iron Man’s argument is treated fairly…up to a point. My own point of view: If there are individuals capable of creating mass destruction and are willing to do so for what they think is the greater good, I hope they’re supervised.

The conflict between heroes takes a lot of the fun out of the action sequences–and that’s the movie’s biggest weakness. When both sides are the good guys, there’s no rooting interest. All you can do is wish they would come to their senses and hope that no one gets hurt.

The big centerpiece fight takes place on the tarmac of a large, international, and strangely empty airport. (Why is it empty? So that these powerful beings can destroy millions of dollars’ worth of property without hurting a single innocent bystander.) What makes this sequence fun, despite the lack of a side to root for, is the comedy. The filmmakers wisely added Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Spider-Man (newcomer Tom Holland) into this fight–and only this fight–to bring in some much-needed laughs.

Holland’s Peter Parker/Spider-Man is the best thing in this movie, and he has only two scenes. Holland plays the web-slinger as an awkward adolescent who doesn’t know when to shut up. While fighting with Captain America, he points out that the Captain’s shield ignores the laws of physics. Of course, so does almost everything in the movie. Marisa Tomei plays a surprisingly sexy Aunt May.

The much smaller final fight is basically Captain America and the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) going up against Iron Man. It was painful to watch–and not in a good way.

Marvel inserted two hints for future films into the closing credits. One is an obvious sequel. The other promises a new Spider-Man reboot starring Holland. That’s the one I’m looking forward to.

We saw Civil War at the Grand Lake’s beautiful Theater 1. After the New Mission‘s downstairs theater, this is probably the best place to see a big, new 3D blockbuster (like the New Mission, it uses two separate digital projectors for 3D). And if you take price into consideration, it’s probably the best–especially on a Tuesday, when all movies, even those in 3D, cost only $5 a ticket.

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