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Max Goldberg

By George

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FILM/LIT It’s anyone’s guess how many films and videos George Kuchar made before his death in 2011 (Portland’s Yale Union is valiantly attempting a comprehensive retrospective, which they estimate will take seven years), but there’s material for at least a hundred more in The George Kuchar Reader (Primary Information, 336 pp., $27.50). Tracing a singular life in movies from the Bronx-bound 8mm melodramas Kuchar made with his twin brother, Mike, on through the boundlessly nutty video conflagrations emerging out of his classroom at the San Francisco Art Institute, the book collects handwritten screenplays, letters, underground comics, meteorological observations, and UFO diaries. Reader editor Andrew Lampert will be in attendance at two special screenings in the coming weeks to report on these deep-sea dives into Kuchar’s self-described cinematic cesspool.

That Kuchar’s literary artifacts should be hilarious and not a little wise is no surprise, but it’s worth pausing to note the extent to which the writing itself illuminates Kuchar’s creative methods. Take the letters of recommendations he wrote for his SFAI students — an obligatory form of writing if there ever was one, but for Kuchar an occasion for uninhibited characterization: “This winged spirit, reared in semitropical heat, can banish the chill that has descended upon your patrons; so turn up the heat and witness what only equatorial nearness can nurture”; “His unbridled lust for livid living endows the fruits of his labor with intoxicating incense. Sniff these works at your own risk as the aroma reeks of secret scents from a Garden of Eden gone mad with flower power”; “He’s a lone figure swimming upstream to a different drumbeat.” No cliché is safe. Kuchar’s persistence in slugging it out with these once familiar figures of speech surely says something about the way he approached a dramatic scene.

Implicitly skewering heroic strains of avant-garde poetics, Kuchar’s accounts of his own filmmaking almost always turn on the body. Take this metabolic account from a 1964 article for Film Culture:

“Many nights I lay awake in my sheets burning with the fever of a new movie script … Sleep only comes when extra sugar is pumped into my body due to the excessive emotional tension that grips me during these celestial periods. The sugar makes my body hot thereby opening its big pores. Then the sweat of my ordeal seeps out in a stink of creativity and new germ has been born. A germ that will grow into the virus of 8mm movies. In the morning I awaken, fresh, vibrant, but constipated with the urge to release a lump of cinematic material.”

So filmmaking is fever, open pores, sweat, stink, germs, and viruses; the film itself, a load of shit. One begins to sense that the many Joycean digressions on “exciting gastric distress” peppering these pages are less a matter of any particular tummy trouble than Kuchar’s underlying conviction that the creative muse is ineluctably bound to more basic drives.

Bodily fixations notwithstanding, Kuchar was plenty canny about film aesthetics, whether pinpointing the underlying motivations for “these gigantic, moving billboards” (“IT WAS LOVE AND OBSESSION”) or situating his own fortuitous ascendancy in the 1960s avant-garde: “You’d develop them [8mm films] cheap at the local camera store and in five or 10 years the emulsion would crack and chip in time for the 1960s, avant-garde film explosion. No need to bake your footage in an oven like so many artists were doing: your home movies had already deteriorated into art.” Not that Kuchar wasn’t grateful: An early letter to Donna Kerness evinces little enthusiasm for his work as a commercial artist but adapts a more familiar exuberance when describing his latest 8mm production about a brawling ménage-a-trois.

The final 50 pages of the Reader are dedicated to a poignant last testament stitched together from the “endless emails of unexpurgated excess” Kuchar sent Kerness in 2010-2011. Even in his teenage letters to Kerness, it’s clear that Kuchar felt unusually at ease writing to the star of his Corruption of the Damned (1965). Describing an earlier melodrama, he writes with unusual candor how “I was very inspired by Arlene and her kin. They are very mixed up and sometimes they are damaging their lives but I like them anyway probably because I’m just like them.” Fifty years later, sick with love and cancer, Kuchar treats Kerness more as a confessor than a confidante. “Anxious to reveal secrets I usually kept under wraps,” Kuchar doesn’t spare any detail in describing his yearning for a long-time “midnight caller” named Larry: “Instead of realizing that he’s just what you call a sex buddy, I turn the whole thing into a live or die, Victorian romance.”

Even in his hour of darkness, Kuchar couldn’t help but seeing his own trials as material for a grand melodrama. “Being the egotistical movie director that I am, I want the motion picture of my life to be an X rated, inspirational saga of the nerdy Bronx kid who walked the red carpets of Hollywood while flirting with the red light districts of Sin City.” In a more reflective mood he writes to Kerness, “Expressing all this in certain chosen words and constructed sentences made the mental and medical troubles take a back seat to creative engineering: an arrangement of letters and punctuations to coalesce the chaos that contaminated my cranium.”

Kuchar writes of depressive anxiety, rampant insecurity, sexual hang-ups, and plenty of confusion in the face of “getting old and dreaming young” — but not a word of boredom. “Since I’m an actor anyway, I see the personal issues I penned (or typed) as emotional motivations in an ongoing (for a time anyway) B-movie.” B-movies aren’t really a wellspring of inspiration; that was all George. A final photograph shows him standing in front of a Denny’s, eyes on the skies like always. 2

 

OFF THE SCREEN: MOVING PICTURES AND WRITTEN WORDS: CELEBRATING THE GEORGE KUCHAR READER

Oct. 15, 7pm, free

Exploratorium

Pier 15, SF

www.exploratorium.edu

A CRIMINAL ACCOUNT OF PLEASURE: THE GEORGE KUCHAR READER

Oct. 18, 7:30pm, $8-10

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

www.ybca.org

Georgian rhapsody

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FILM Spanning nine months of programs and a full century of cinema, “Discovering Georgian Cinema” is the kind of ambitious exhibition that reminds us how much of film history is yet to be written. The series, presented by the Pacific Film Archive, represents a remarkable feat of coordination: Its opening weeks feature prints from Toulouse, Berlin, New York, Tbilisi, and, most delicately given recent history, Moscow.

Building upon a core collection of Soviet-era Georgian films held by the PFA, curator Susan Oxtoby organized the program around three periods: the silent era, the art cinema explosion of the 1950s through the 1980s, and the contemporary scene. While many titles will be unfamiliar even to dyed-in-the-wool cinephiles, echoes and premonitions of broader trends in international cinema abound. To take only one example, series opener Blue Mountains (1984) seems to draw upon Jacques Tati while at the same time anticipating the New Romanian Cinema in its elegant formalist satire of state bureaucracy. But then perhaps the ultimate lesson of a series like “Discovering Georgian Cinema” is that every New Wave renews some earlier illumination.

SF Bay Guardian What was the genesis of your work on “Discovering Georgian Cinema”?

Susan Oxtoby The genesis for the project really comes from the fact that BAM/PFA holds an important collection of Soviet Georgian films — 37 prints in total. Individual films have shown in different contexts, but we haven’t done a major Georgian series in many years. In 2011 I received a curatorial research grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts to travel to other archives with significant holdings, and then we raised funds for a touring series from the National Endowment for the Arts. We invited Nino Dzandzava, who is currently working at the National Archives of Georgia, to visit Berkeley to examine our collection. Viewing prints with her was a wonderful experience because she could supply me a sense of the history behind these films and the connections between them. There was also my visit to the Tbilisi International Film Festival, which was extraordinary in terms of getting a sense of the current film scene in Georgia and having an opportunity to meet with contemporary filmmakers.

SFBG Was it always your intention to be linking the historical films to more contemporary work?

Oxtoby Absolutely, I think it is very important to see the contemporary era in light of the history of Georgian cinema. It’s quite evident that young filmmakers working in Georgia today are aware of their country’s film heritage.

SFBG Can you talk about some of your priorities in trying to create a context for a national cinema?

Oxtoby My priority is to show strong examples of what has been created in Georgia within an art cinema tradition. Over the course of the retrospective we will spotlight numerous directors and have a chance to examine their individual film styles. We launch the series with two guests from Tbilisi, veteran filmmaker Eldar Shengelaia (The Blue Mountains, 1963’s The White Caravan, 1968’s An Unusual Exhibition), who will present his own films plus his father Nikoloz Shengelaia’s Twenty-Six Commissars (1928); and Nana Janelidze, the executive director of the Georgian National Film Center, who is herself a filmmaker (2011’s Will There Be A Theater Up There?!, 1985’s The Family) and screenwriter (1984/1987’s Repentance). In October, film historian Peter Rollberg will join us to speak about Georgian films from the silent era, and archivist Nino Dzandzava will present a program of Georgian Kulturfilms from the early 1930s. In mid-November, Levan Koguashvili (2010’s Street Days, 2013’s Blind Dates) will be our guest.

SFBG The silent films in the series that I’ve seen are quite striking in the way they refigure elements of Soviet filmmaking. A film like Eliso (1928) has such strong elements of montage.

Oxtoby Yes, that’s true. We will present Eliso with a newly commissioned score adapted from traditional Georgian folk songs by Carl Linich and performed by Trio Kavkasia on October 25 and 26; this will be a truly unique way to experience this beautiful silent era classic presented with choral accompaniment. The silent era films by Ivan Perestiani, Mikhail Kalatozov, Nikoloz Shengelaia, Lev Push, and others are absolutely wonderful. There’s also an interesting short 40-minute silent film called Buba (1930) by Noutsa Gogoberidze, which we will screen on November 8. She was traveling in the same circles with Dovzhenko and Eisenstein and collaborated with the avant-garde painter David Kakabadze, but her work was not endorsed by the Stalin regime and so she was more or less written out of film history. Her film is a bit like Buñuel’s Las Hurdes (1933), made a few years later.

SFBG Were there any other films that were especially surprising to you in terms of style or theme?

Oxtoby Oh yes, many. Little Red Devils (1923) could be a Douglas Fairbanks film; My Grandmother (1929) is Dadaist in character and very fresh stylistically. Then there’s a film like Nikolai Shengelaia’s Twenty Six Commissars (1932), which deals with the geopolitics of the oil fields in Baku — its political concerns might have been pulled out of today’s news headlines. I’m intrigued to see the influence of Italian neorealism on such films as Magdana’s Donkey (1955), Our Courtyard (1956) or even the contemporary work Susa (2010), as well as the influence of the French New Wave on Otar Iosseliani’s films from the 1960s. I want to hear more from the filmmakers and historians as to how much back and forth there was during the Soviet era. How much world cinema was being seen in Tbilisi? How much were filmmakers traveling abroad and seeing things at festivals? One definitely senses a strong connection with international cinema when you watch these films from Georgia. *

DISCOVERING GEORGIAN CINEMA

Sept 26-April 19

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk

bampfa.berkeley.edu

 

Rites of passage

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FILM It’s commonly said of Nathaniel Dorsky’s films that they are beautiful beyond words. Which is true as far as it goes, but then the same could be said of many poems and they are words. What’s clear is that Dorsky is absorbed with a classical fulfillment of form, and as such his films do better with poetics than interpretation (he has himself supplied a fine entry point with his slim volume Devotional Cinema). Poetics in this context means respecting the mystery and proceeding gingerly with gesture, metaphor, and detail. No one ever says of a Dorsky film, “I liked it the more I thought about it.” Conversely, watching a second or third time one marvels to find the beauty springing to life with the same force, subtler and lovelier now for this trick of renewal. No one ever says of a sunset, “I’ve seen this one before.”

A three-part retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive beginning June 10 retraces the last decade of Dorsky’s work. The Return (2011) and August and After (2012) receive local premieres this weekend, accompanied by the delicate Pastourelle (2010). June 17 brings his “Quartet,” to my mind a signal achievement of the young century. The series concludes June 24 with three earlier films confirming Dorsky’s mastery of an open (sometimes called polyvalent) form of montage: Song and Solitude (2006), Threnody (2004), and The Visitation (2002). How fitting that these films should be spaced out over consecutive days of rest! They will be shown on 16mm because that is what they are (last I checked the museums still show the Old Masters in paint).

It’s our good fortune to share a city with Dorsky: opportunities to see the films with him as a guide come a little more frequently, and the phenomena that supply his visual repertoire are that much more familiar. Here are the blossoms, the Chinatown lanterns, the drifting Muni trains, the ocean skies, and the seasons as we only dare to see them in deepest reverie.

Dorsky began making movies under the influence of people like Stan Brakhage and Gregory Markopoulos, filmmakers who strove for an intrinsic cinematic language (while the auteurists chiseled out an essential cinema, they sought cinema’s essence). After relocating to San Francisco in 1971, he reemerged with Hours for Jerome (1980-1982), a dense exercise in spiritual autobiography culled from pastoral years in New Jersey. The films began arriving with greater regularity after Triste (1998) and continue apace even after the desertion of his beloved Kodachrome.

The silence of Dorsky’s films is lush, providing intoxicating accompaniment to the slowed projection of 18 frames per second which dips the photographic action just out of the flow of representation. The crescendos that surge past the finish of his films invariably leave me surprised that I haven’t been listening to music, as the black of the theater seems clarified in the same way silence is after an expressive composition. Pushing the analogy further, the relationship between movement and stillness in his films is akin to that of sound and rest in music, the two leaved together as intonation. We really need a new word to describe the juddering movement of branches and buds that punctuate Dorsky’s films. “Quiver” is close, but it doesn’t capture the spring in the frame, like dancers on a stage.

A couple of months ago, Dorsky showed something called Kodachrome Dailies from the Time of Song and Solitude (Reel 1) at Lincoln Center: Song and Solitude-era footage in the chronological order in which it was shot. The material had a completely distinct character viewed this way. Dorsky talked of it as a journal. The loose form made it easier to relate to his eye being grasped by something in the world, and yet one missed the justice of the cuts.

If pressed for a defining quality of these films, I would say rightness —each shot developing to its fullness, tuned to what comes before and after. The fact that this formal refinement is itself the focus of the films creates a suspension of time which, after all, is a basic condition of paradise. Certainly the films are colored by experience, as August and After for instance is clearly marked by grief, yet this is never what they are “about.” Trust is placed in the self-expression of the film stock — its luster and dusk.

Dorsky’s films will reintroduce you to what branches make of the sky and how the grass gladdens when the sun reappears from its shade. I think this is what people are talking about when they say the films remind them of childhood. “A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full/hands;/How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any/more than he./I guess it must the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful/green stuff woven.” We could choose many lines of verse to say the same, but Whitman’s will do. There is something mystical in Dorsky’s slightly ajar illuminations of worldly objects and features. And yet so too is there something altogether sensible and almost courtly in their formal arrangements. The shots of dogs make us chuckle because we’re in a position to recognize our own recognition, all too human.

On first viewing The Return struck me as a deeply melancholy work, its darkly reflecting surfaces and doublings bearing the impression of lost sleep. August and After, on the other hand, is more immediate in its effect and a superior example of how Dorsky’s style can serve distinct emotional structures (threnody here). Tender impressions taken near the end of George Kuchar’s life, the filmmaker surrounded by family and friends, are framed in the light of long afternoons. Everything that follows is touched by these pictures of intimacy: two workers sliding down a skyscraper, a distant glass door sweeping a ray of light across a café, agitated steps into bramble. A rhythmic montage focuses on packages and fruits carried down the street, the actual things transfigured into pure color. When the film’s ship finally sails, it does so with such grace as to say love without saying.

“AFTERIMAGE: THREE NIGHTS WITH NATHANIEL DORSKY”

June 10, 17, and 24, 7:30pm, $5.50-$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-5249

bampfa.berkeley.edu

Light meter

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FILM San Francisco Cinematheque artistic director Steve Polta balances familiar names with lesser known for the third annual “Crossroads” festival at the Victoria Theater, though Ken Jacobs’ Occupy-strength Seeking the Monkey King (2011) promises to unseat the image of a mellowing old master.

The festival’s only solo program, besides a tribute to Canyon Cinema co-founder Chick Strand (her 1979 film Soft Fiction is rarely screened and highly recommended), belongs to Laida Lertxundi. A former CalArts student with a sure handle on 16mm as a philosophical instrument, Lertxundi was recently featured in the Whitney Biennial. Where Strand made some of her most beautiful work far from Southern California, Bilbao-born Lertxundi brings an outsider’s eye and sharply turned cadence to the shifting landscape of Los Angeles: one has the sense of desert reclaiming city watching her short films.

A Lax Riddle Unit (2011) opens on the curled lip of James Carr’s soul number “Love Attack” and a cragged landscape view. The long take floods with softening light, but then a terrifically decisive cut deposits us in the flat light of an apartment. The sudden switch bears the imprint of both insight and displacement. Leafy potted plants reach for the natural light framed in a window, and Carr’s wail gives way to Robert Wyatt’s impressionism: a different emotional architecture entirely. The camera turns slow pirouettes through the apartment, passing over an amplifier (always this confusion about the relationship between sight and sound), a woman kneeling to play a keyboard, some records, and then catching up with her again sprawled in bed.

As is often the case in Lertxundi’s films, the composition does not settle on the human form in the usual way. The residue of the apartment, oddly reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963), develops until a few shots later we end with a bleeding red dusk spreading across Los Angeles — an image pitched on the edge of surrender.

My Tears are Dry (2009) is even more minimalist in its riddling structure. Lertxundi cuts between an image of a woman’s torso on a bed, playing and rewinding the same snip of Hoagy Lands’ title ballad, and another woman sitting on a couch strumming a dissonant chord. Out of this frustrated syntax comes blessed continuity. The song breaks through and sets in motion a weightless daydream borrowed from Bruce Baillie’s 1966 single-shot film, All My Life (included on the same program along with other antecedents by Hollis Frampton and Morgan Fisher): in place of his horizontal pan across flowers, Lertxundi tilts her camera up past palms towards the same pale blue sky. Poignant without object, the film delivers a gentle spiritual plea for persistence.

Several other “Crossroads” films successfully hone in on resonances specific to film stock. Curious Light (2011), Charlotte Pryce’s hand-processed illumination of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, provides a tactile 16mm equivalent to the absorption of reading. Scott Stark’s brilliant collage, One Way to Find Out (2012), stretches Hollywood ‘Scope images of desire like so much taffy. Rei Hayama’s A Child Burying Dead Insects (2009) decelerates a short fragment of film (a girl jogs into a leafy frame, tosses up a ball, kneels for the burial, and exits the frame) until the film itself begins to rebel in the frame. The Lumière-like simplicity of the action and swirling soundtrack music opens up a spry meditation on film’s still-startling capacity for reincarnation.

Ben Russell foregoes his “Trypps” film-series tag for River Rites (2011), but the concept of a single-roll invocation of ritual and trance remains. Curving cultural anthropology into the experience of time, Russell generates ontological fireworks and in situ reflection on filming other people. Ben Rivers builds on the fictive anthropology mode last seen in I Know Where I’m Going (2009) for his ambitious Slow Action (2010). His camera picks over “the ruins of ruins” of four island sites elaborated by voiceover narration (written by novelist and critic Mark von Schlegell) rich in invented ethnographic detail and philosophical speculation as to the true nature of utopia. The two Bens have collaborated on the forthcoming A Spell to Ward off Darkness, a film shot in Norway starring the musician Rob Lowe. Fingers crossed it’s ready for the next “Crossroads.” *

“CROSSROADS 2012”

Fri/18-Sun/20, $10 (festival pass, $50)

Victoria Theatre

2961 16th St., SF

www.sfcinematheque.org

 

How dark was my alley

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FILM The word that comes to mind when thinking of Elliot Lavine’s semiannual film noir programs at the Roxie is inexhaustible. With 30 films packed into 14 days, “I Wake up Dreaming” wisely takes a pass on questions of noir’s quintessence in favor of open-ended research into the mutations and paroxysms of mid-century malaise.

There’s no mistaking genuine masterpieces like The Big Combo (1955) and In a Lonely Place (1950), to say nothing of a still unfathomable crossover work like Detour (1945), but Lavine’s series conspires to induce the genre delirium that first inspired the French critics to call a noir a noir. In spite of the preponderance of dead ends and blind alleys, there’s always a trap door leading into the next movie. So this time around we get Shadow of Terror (1945) rather than Reign of Terror (1949), The Underworld Story (1950) instead of Underworld U.S.A. (1961), Killer’s Kiss (1955) instead of The Killers (versions 1946 or 1964) or Kubrick’s own follow-up The Killing (1956), Shoot to Kill (1947) instead of Born to Kill (1947). Chronologies matter less than interchangeability. You watch Lee Van Cleef’s icy professional in opening night’s The Big Combo (sparkling in a 35mm restoration by UCLA) return as a foaming killer in closing night’s Guns, Girls, and Gangsters (1959). His kind never has time to develop a character on the margins of these already marginal films, but with repetition comes iconography.

John Alton’s rhapsodic cinematography threads four of this year’s selections (The Big Combo; 1948’s Hollow Triumph; 1947’s The Pretender; 1944’s Storm Over Lisbon; and 1948’s He Walked By Night). In the famous finale of Joseph H. Lewis’ The Big Combo, which audaciously sets out to improve upon 1942’s Casablanca‘s even more famous conclusion on the tarmac, the plot seems to exist primarily for the lighting. Cops emerge out of the fog and Jean Wallace’s trophy girl freezes Richard Conte’s sociopath in a spotlight — as pure an effect as anything in F.W. Murnau and in this case providing a perfect echo of an earlier scene of killing as silence rather than light.

Nicholas Ray and Val Lewton protégé Mark Robson lead Saturday’s bill with message movies impugning society’s guilt for a young man’s sins. As with many of the era’s social problem pictures, miles of speechifying script and awkward narrative frames make Knock on Any Door (1949) and Edge of Doom (1950) tough going if still interesting in the particulars. Knock on Any Door is timid next to Ray’s subsequent study in juvenile delinquency, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), but there are premonitions of what’s to come in those moments when the director fully engages his actors’ bodies: when Humphrey Bogart’s world-wary defense lawyer hauls Nick “Pretty Boy” Romano (John Derek) into a back alley to reclaim a debt, for instance, and in the passage when Romano’s wife slumps against the stove after he blows for a robbery. You’re so focused on her balletic movement to the floor that you hardly notice that she’s reaching for the gas.

There’s a similar fascination to Farley Granger performance as a loose cannon in Edge of Doom, lashing out at a world that doesn’t forget about money even when you’re trying to bury your poor mother. As in Ray’s indelible They Live by Night (1949), Granger’s palpable insecurity makes him a key figure for the melancholy shading of noir anxiety.

Prolific director Edward L. Cahn’s Guns, Girls, and Gangsters is the kind of red meat B movie that manages some genuinely weird flourishes in spite of its undeniable limitations as a factory-line commodity. The Vegas heist plot is barely motivation for Mamie Van Doren’s curves, and the film itself blends right in with the roadside motels and cheap nightclubs. It’s a particularly egregious offender in the redundant voice-over category (“It was a moment of great tension for Wheeler”), but then Van Cleef shows up — fresh out of prison with Mamie on the mind. The sight of him lurking outside a motel window at night in his sunglasses is something to remember. Van Doren may be the “merchandise,” as her character says, but Van Cleef conjures noir’s actual libido: leering, desperate, and unpredictable.

The same cheap thrills that Cahn serves up with gusto come under close scrutiny in Stanley Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss: here we find pulp as object d’art. Made when Kubrick was 27, the film emulates its Times Square setting in its barrage of perceptual jolts — like a Weegee photograph sprung to life. Plenty of noirs delineate capitalist degradations of the city, but rarely with a cleanness of line as the sequence in which Kubrick cuts between a man being prepped for the boxing ring and a woman making herself up for her nightshift as a dancing partner.

It’s all so much meat in Kubrick’s unsparing view, and one might add here that the rain of footsteps trailing down a New York canyon is more eloquent than any of the human dialogue (call it an anti-social problem picture). Kubrick acts as his own cinematographer, making great use of his chops as a magazine photographer to scavenge bitter ironies from street locations. His editing knocks things further lopsided, revealing only mirrors where you expect to find character. You know the hour is late watching Killer’s Kiss and The Big Combo, both of them released in 1955 and both advancing a self-conscious apotheosis of the style in the ruins of its bygone glamour — in a word, modernism. 

 

“I WAKE UP DREAMING: THE FRENCH HAVE A NAME FOR IT!”

May 11-24, $11

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St., SF

www.roxie.com

Into new territory

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SFIFF How to account for the desire for difficult terrain that runs through so much contemporary art cinema? Exploring the margins and crevices of what’s readily visible is just what good filmmakers do, but extremes have become commonplace. The irony that these far-flung films live on in the cosmopolitan vapors of the festival circuit cannot be lost on the filmmakers themselves. Remoteness may be a relative matter, with patience revealing islands everywhere, but inaccessible landscapes nonetheless guide a handful of interesting features showing at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival.

>> Read our complete coverage of the San Francisco International Film Festival here.

The bourgeois couple stripped bare by vacation is a standby of modernist cinema, with Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (1954) still the gold standard and Maren Ade’s Everyone Else (2009) the best in recent memory. Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet is an almost classical work in this mode. An engaged couple (Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenberg) hire a local guide (Bidzina Gujabidze) to lead them through the magnificent Georgian steppe, and so the psychological roundelay begins. Fraught staging, language difficulties, Gerry-rigged tracking shots, and significant pocks in the Caucasus landscape are all worked out with great expertise but little verve.

Where The Loneliest Planet draws on landscape to reveal repressed instincts, Ulrich Köhler’s Sleeping Sickness drifts towards further occlusion. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is the obvious reference point, though here it’s a black European who pursues a white man gone native. In the film’s first half we watch as rueful Dr. Ebbo Velten (Pierre Bokma) prepares to leave Cameroon’s lush danger with his wife and daughter. The imminent departure emboldens him to accuse the local authorities of bilking international aid donors for a nonexistent sleeping sickness crisis. Then Alex Nzila (Jean-Cristophe Folly) arrives in Cameroon to evaluate the medical program and finds Velten changed: he’s in a business partnership with a man he openly despised in the first half of the film, and we hardly hear any mention of his European family. Berlin School director Köhler works displacement as a figure of psychology, politics, and narrative and smartly uses the international aid question as a frame to plunge deeper mysteries of identity.

Conrad is a significant presence in The Rings of Saturn, the peripatetic novel by W.G Sebald that’s also the focus of Grant Gee’s suitably oblique documentary portrait. Patience (After Sebald) offers astute commentary on the moods of Sebald’s prose from thinkers like Adam Phillips, Robert Macfarlane, and Tacita Dean, though Gee succumbs to the spectacle of Google Earth mapping of the novel and some decidedly sub-Sebaldian spiritualism. Still, hearing the author speak his own mind on Virginia Woolf’s moth and the phenomenology of walking is worth the price of admission for fans.

Gonçalo Tocha eschews the Google’s eye view in It’s the Earth Not the Moon, his resplendent study of Corvo (the tiny northernmost island of the Azores, close enough to being in the middle of the ocean and a far outlier of European Union). Tocha and his sound man Dídio Pestana dropped anchor there to capture every face, bird, and rock on the island — a self-consciously grandiose goal with something of the 19th century about it. The film first approaches Corvo with statistical lyricism: dimensions, number of residents, number of roads, and so on. The notion that you could hold the entire island in your head at once is an illusion, of course, but a sustaining one. Corvo is an island such as you might have imagined as a child, which is not to say that It’s the Earth is innocent of the world. As economic math and electoral politics sweep the second part of the film, Tocha proves himself an inheritor of the French essay-film tradition of Chris Marker and Agnès Varda. The film’s three hours pass easily in the intimacy of encounter, but one still admires the desire to give the film experience some qualitative measure of being marooned.

Corvo’s aging population might well feel at home in the timeless Brazilian village of Found Memories, the fable of a young woman born in the wrong time coming to a community of people who have forgotten to die. Along with It’s the Earth and other SFIFF selections Palaces of Pity and Neighboring Sounds, Júlia Murat’s first narrative feature seals a particularly strong year of Portuguese-language films. She delineates time and space through routine, patiently unfolding characterization in the adjoining repetitions. Lucio Bonelli’s cinematography is beautiful work in itself, fearlessly embracing darkness and shadow (the rural village must have seemed like easy street after lensing Lisandro Alonso’s formidable landscapes). Found Memories doesn’t break the mold of slow cinema — its melancholy mingling of photography and myth is especially reminiscent of Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica (2010) — but a late passage of clipped post-punk demonstrates that Murat can handle a sudden swerve.

That leaves little space for Davy Chou’s assured debut, Golden Slumbers, and it deserves an article of its own. The remoteness we experience here is that of phantoms: Chou’s film excavates the thriving Cambodian cinema that was rubbed out by the Khmer Rouge. All that remains are fugitive traces of printed ephemera and soundtracks of curling orchestral ballads and psychedelic nuggets — and the memories of those people who made or relished the films and survived Pol Pot. Most of the films discussed in this article use offscreen sound to develop a sense of place beyond the frame, but Golden Slumbers is a special case, with the poverty of archival materials turned to an advantage as elegy. Chou’s gliding Phnom Penh interludes and spaciously staged interviews reflect the influence of Jia Zhangke and Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), but these cinephilic touchstones never overwhelm the personal, defiant accounts of moviemaking at the heart of the film. Ever after is the tragic refrain of Chou’s film, but the once upon a time is as golden as he says. 

 

www.sffs.org

Eternal return

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FILM Gregory Markopoulos was born in Toledo, Ohio, but his Greek heritage lights the way in critical appraisals of his refined and elusive body of work. Many of the films featured in the Pacific Film Archive’s “Seconds of Eternity” series are imagined on the stage of Greek myth. After leaving New York in 1967 with his partner Robert Beavers, an outstanding filmmaker in his own right, Markopoulos drew still closer to his ancestral home. He died in 1992, but Beavers, who will be on hand at the PFA to shepherd the films, has preserved the work for the Temenos, a unique archive and biennial outdoor screening cycle located near Lyssaraia, Markopoulos’s father’s home. This June brings another such event.

Markopoulos’s films have themselves long achieved mythic stature. He was a colossal figure during the heroic phase of the American avant-garde and then left it behind. Dissatisfied with exhibition standards, he withdrew his prints from circulation (the Temenos screenings represents the idealistic rejoinder). Remarkably, he requested that critic P. Adams Sitney excise a full chapter on his works from Visionary Film, generally considered the central critical survey of the American avant-garde. So Markopoulos went to almost unthinkable lengths to maintain the primacy of his early films (he continued making new ones, as well). Any opportunity to watch these ravishing films close to home is unusual.

Markopoulos once remarked that “locations and beautiful faces have been the backbone of my work,” and one sees that to an archetypal degree in Psyche (1947), the first film of his Du Sang, de la volupté et de la mort trilogy, made when he was still a teenage student at USC living across the hall from Curtis Harrington. Inspired by a Pierre Louÿs novella, the film replaces spoken language with dynamic color and framing. We begin with a man and woman crossing each other on a leafy Angeleno street: a few steps further and they turn back to consider what they’ve just passed. All that follows might be transpire within this instant: a languid fantasia hatched within a fugitive moment of lost time. Markopoulos frames the couple in deep focus two-shots, grazing shoulders and lips and tumbling toward dreams.

An evident poverty of means only concentrates the film’s withdrawal into a private world of frustrated beauty (across town Kenneth Anger was fashioning his more explicitly Dionysian Fireworks). The dive into inexpressible desire reaches a peak when Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “Serenade” suddenly drops out and the image snaps to a silent interlude of natural splendor bordering on abstraction — sea grass gorgeously superimposed upon the sea. This image gives magnificent form to the phrase “out of the blue” and overflows the frame in such a way as to shake loose the film’s more studied visual effects.

Markopoulos would later articulate in written form (“Towards a New Narrative Form in Motion Pictures”) what he set out to accomplish beginning with Psyche: “The film maker gradually convinces the spectator not only to see and to hear, but to participate in what is being created on the screen, on both the narrative and introspective levels. The magnificent landscapes of emotions, with colors brighter than the film viewer has ever been concerned with, begin to exist. The transient impact of meetings, handshakes, kisses, and the hours apart from these contacts becomes revealed in all its astounding simplicity.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w59mrfKQRdQ

That “astounding simplicity” is readily apparent in A Christmas Carol (1940), a compressed bildungsroman evoking a richly embroidered fabric of memory with only a few spare images (mother setting the table, father looking up over his newspaper, figures dancing on a nearby rooftop). Twice a Man (1963) reveals the full extent of Markopoulos’ dream of a new narrative language. A psychologically fraught interpolation of the myth of Hippolytus and Phaedra (son seduced by mother and liberated from suicidal thoughts by a healer-artist), the film surfaces an internal state of emergency in a persistently emergent form.

Most remarkable is the densely interleaved editing by which Markopoulos folds multiple registers of time, color, and theme. Though often likened to other seminal works of the American avant-garde (especially Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man, 1961-64), Twice a Man‘s fractal form also recalls contemporaneous French films like Alain Resnais’s Muriel (1963) — though if anything Markopoulos’s cutting seems more evolved for its thoroughgoing commitment to simultaneity. Beginning with a ferry ride into blue New York, suggestive of any number of mythic crossings, there is an ever-sharpening concordance of different blocks of imagery. The protagonist’s central struggle to get out from under his mother and be reborn as his own person takes root in these syntactical somersaults. Indeed, this is where the modernist character of Markopoulos’s work shines through: a classical story embodied in the radical address of the senses. (You don’t need a neurologist to know that your brain gets a tune-up watching this film). Less successful is the cut-up spoken address that Phaedra delivers to her son, with which Markopoulos seems a little too assured of his genius. The haranguing pure speech dampens an otherwise brilliant film with a faintly misogynistic mist.

Though Markopoulos delved still deeper into myth with his Illiac Passion (1964-1967), he also gravitated towards more focused portraits of people and places in these years. San Francisco Cinematheque will screen Galaxie (1966), his anthology of New York people, in May. Meanwhile, the PFA sneaks in Ming Green (1966) before the epic Illiac Passion. The silent film gathers up images of the New York home Markopoulos was soon to leave as if for a bouquet. Edited in camera with great fluency, Ming Green revises the still life for cinema: the apartment’s objects sit in repose, vibrating with the articulation of color and residue of memory. Flourishing superimpositions put on a terrific show without abandoning the refined air of quietude. It’s unlikely that you’ll see a more exquisite short roll of film this year.

SECONDS OF ETERNITY: THE FILMS OF GREGORY J. MARKOPOULOS

Feb. 9-16, $5.50-$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-5249

bampfa.berkeley.edu

Zero for conduct

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YEAR IN FILM American cinema lost several of its troubadours this past year: genuine independents like Robert Breer, Owen Land, Adolfas Mekas, Richard Leacock, Jordan Belson, and George Kuchar. Critical appraisal of these sui generis filmmakers tends to rest upon masterpieces and technique, but several were also influential as teachers.

Mekas founded the film department at Bard College, which today boasts a remarkable faculty including Peter Hutton and Kelly Reichardt. German filmmaker Helga Fanderl dedicated her San Francisco Cinematheque show earlier this fall to Breer, her mentor at Cooper Union. Leacock used his post at MIT in the 1970s to develop relatively affordable video systems for student filmmaking. Kuchar brought several generations of San Francisco Art Institute kids into moviemaking laboratories flying under banners like “AC/DC Psychotronic Teleplays” and “Electro-graphic Sinema.” After Kuchar’s passing SFAI professor and administrator Jeannene Przyblyski wrote, “I will very much miss waking up at night worrying about what might be going on in Studio 8.”

Teaching remains an underappreciated aspect of the whole adventure of avant-garde filmmaking. The late 2010 release Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000 (University of California Press) lovingly detailed the instructional incubators that have contributed to a long-flourishing Bay Area avant-garde, but one still hungers for more particular chronicles along the lines of “Professor Ken,” Michael Zryd’s contribution to Optic Antics: The Cinema of Ken Jacobs (Oxford University Press). Zryd persuasively links Jacobs’ intensive teaching style at SUNY Binghamton to his thrilling feature-length frame analysis, Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969). The story of the American avant-garde’s alliance with the academy has everything to do with the mid-century college boom and the rise of theory, but this general view doesn’t take into account those outlying autodidact instructors who reoriented the teacher-student exchange in much the same way that they called upon a different kind of spectatorship.

Among the many treasures in the SFAI archive’s George Kuchar file are a couple of his syllabuses: “In this workshop atmosphere we all embark on making a moving picture using the equipment at school and … whatever else falls into our hands.” Class participation is what the class was. It’s also discretionary: “Come as frequently as you wish so that we can showcase your unique talents or specialty acts and help us try to solve the many technical and creative problems involved in making moving pictures.” Asked about his unorthodox teaching materials, Kuchar responded, “Am I going to show the students Potemkin and then talk about our class movies? With the kind of words I use and my accent? It’ll be like sacrilege or something … It’s stupid anyway. Renting movies is expensive as hell, and you can put that money into making a movie.”

Kuchar’s creativity took a liberating form in the classroom. Elsewhere in the SFAI file, the filmmaker reflects upon having to rescue terrible class productions in the editing room. One laughs at first and then is touched that he considered these real movies, imperfect but necessary to see through.

 

 

RAY OF LIGHT, RAY OF DARKNESS

 

One of the year’s most significant film restorations originated in a comparable workshop environment. Nicholas Ray arrived at SUNY Binghamton in 1971 not having directed since 55 Days at Peking (1963). As in Kuchar’s workshops, he took his students as collaborators: everyone rotated production jobs and worked toward the common ends of We Can’t Go Home Again, an unspooled picture of dissolution spanning the election years of 1968 and 1972. The workshop process became central to the psychodrama itself. As in other films of the era by John Cassavetes, Robert Kramer, and Shirley Clarke, the filmmaking style dives deep into breakdown narratives: he and four students charting out self-destructing versions of themselves.

In Leo Tolstoy’s prescriptive essay “Are the Peasant Children to Learn to Write from Us, or Are We to Learn from the Peasant Children?”, the great Russian author dramatizes his teaching experience to show how an attuned instructor can enrich a student’s intrinsic sense of harmony. Ray evinces a similar degree of trust in his pupils, but towards the ends of drawing out their intrinsic disharmony (this was Nixon time, after all). The composition of the drama and the drama itself bleed into one another; performance is inescapable, the film grasping how the phrase “the personal is political” was reversing itself.

We Can’t Go Home Again — which plays in a restored and reconstructed version along with Susan Ray’s contextualizing documentary Don’t Expect Too Much at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in January 2012 — was long thought unsalvageable for both technical and artistic reasons. Ray conceived the film as a multi-projector performance, with several streams of narration playing simultaneously and various 16 mm/Super 8 mm frames affecting a kind of cinematic Guernica. The limitations of the novice crew are readily apparent, though the amateur acting likely plays differently in our present media environment. Ray continued to tinker long after presenting a version at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, and the present reconstruction doesn’t claim to be definitive. It does, however, make Ray’s vision a feasible if still challenging theatrical proposition.

As always in the director’s work, the characters’ emotions are primary and sharply defined in space. Vulnerable figures reach across their loneliness; improvised family units emerge from the ashes of corruption and betrayal. The thin veneer of middle-class reality that gives 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause and 1956’s Bigger Than Life their magnificent tension is gone, leaving only the characters’ own psychological mirrors and Ray himself clad in James Dean’s red jacket. Student Tom Farrell is the last of Ray’s boy angels, a bewildered innocent suffering moral estrangement from his policeman father (whom he loves). The agonizing close-up in which he shears his beard in front of both a mirror and Ray’s camera is both visceral and symbolically telling, the beating heart of the film.

Though deeply marked by shame and pain, We Can’t Go Home Again also has a comic streak. The counterculture dream is pictured as eating raw cauliflower without any pants on. As he prepares to act out his suicide Ray mutters to himself, “I made ten goddamned westerns, and I can’t even tie a noose.” Of course this kind of flaunted martyrdom requires its own vanity, which might lead one to wonder about the lasting impact of Ray’s teaching — that is, whether his ferocious movie might have superseded the students’ learning.

His colleague Ken Jacobs certainly thought so: “I had the dumb idea that he would balance the little department, teaching from his narrative/Hollywood experience but he was self-aggrandizing BS throughout, with tantalizing glimpses of a former self.” Don’t Expect Too Much justifiably avoids department politics to focus on the film itself, but knowing this acrimonious background colors Ray’s former students’ awed remembrances of the Great Artist. There’s a lot of talk about the director working by instinct, exactly the kind of mystification Jacobs targets when he draws a distinction between “living through the cinema” and “using film to enrich your engagement with life and the real world”: “One is an experience that dominates while the other condemns you to be free.” The irony is that it’s hard to imagine a public university giving either man so much freedom today — if they even hired them at all.

Let’s get lost

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FILM Dragonslayer tags along with Josh “Skreech” Sandoval, a Fullerton, Calif. skater celebrated for shredding pools and living a vagabond’s life. First-time director Tristan Patterson fronts with the kind of side-winding portraiture that prizes sensory impressions instead of back-story, but whittle away Dragonslayer‘s loose ends and you end up with an unremarkable lost generation romance, a Bonnie and Clyde with lower stakes. If Dragonslayer‘s Sundance awards and Christine Vachon executive producer credit are any indication, Patterson’s combination of familiar character packaging and cool reality effects has already been a lucrative one.

The film meets Skreech at 23: he’s turned his back on sponsorship gigs and a romance that produced a son (no trace of the mother here). In an arbitrarily defined chapter structure, Skreech investigates freshly abandoned pools, squats in a friend’s backyard, shows off his medical marijuana license, and cracks tallboys in Southern California’s magic light. He’s stunned by a pretty girl’s red lipstick and fades into a relationship with her (it takes a while before the movie treats her as anything more than scenery). He takes a few earnest stabs at fatherhood and rehearses his principles of no principles to the soundtrack’s well-stocked bangs.

There are a few genuinely poignant moments — Skreech’s taking a call from his estranged mother in a bus full of punks — but in general Dragonslayer is too caught up in its own glossy reverie to register emergent emotions. Patterson’s tendency to use editing as dramatic shorthand is evident in an early sequence of Skreech muffing a skate contest abroad: repeated shots of Skreech wiping out are cut with the eventual winner’s triumphs and then back to our hero’s defeated expression. Arranged in the foregone style of reality television, the actual event is given no room to breathe. This kind of telescoping becomes even more calculating when Patterson treads into Skreech and Leslie’s garbled romance. Patterson seems eager to place the movie in the tradition arty wasted youth pics (take your pick), but Dragonslayer‘s riskless form makes like Real Skaters of Orange County.

Skreech’s interesting face is the only thing that counts. Like a punk Giacometti, he appears very differently from one angle to the next. His rotating hairstyles and t-shirts provide visual fizz, and he’s also good for sweetly stoned bits of dropout philosophy. With all that said, it’s difficult to imagine Patterson pulling off the same frictionless portraiture with one of the punks squatting in Oscar Grant Plaza — someone, that is, who would necessitate difficult editorial decisions. I didn’t love Matthew Porterfield’s 2010 Putty Hill — another portrait of lost youth with plenty of other elements in common — but its canny diffusion of grief and formally inscribed layers of knowledge make for an instructive comparison with Dragonslayer‘s shallow depths. The filmmaker’s hand is both invisible and inescapable in Dragonslayer, its main purpose to score the artistic equivalent of a contact high.

After inking Skreech with a tribute to his son, a tattooist speaks wistfully about how the young man’s wild style hearkens back to the days before skateboarding was another ESPN sport. For his own part, Skreech listens to the Germs when he’s cruising Fullerton with his infant son. There’s an interesting question of punk nostalgia lurking here, but Dragonslayer is too caught up banking a pretty picture to address it.

DRAGONSLAYER opens Fri/18 at the Roxie.

GOLDIES 2011: Paul Clipson

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GOLDIES Whether we’re talking about his verging live projections or crystalline short films, Paul Clipson makes things happen onscreen. His exploratory form of lyricism is composed for Super 8 film. That for is critical, since Clipson shoots with a well-practiced intuition for what shows up as gold in Super 8 (an increasingly rare form of presentiment). While taking great advantage of the small-gauge camera’s pencil-like responsiveness to movement, Clipson works from a keen appreciation for the interrelation between fine-grained detail and expansive volumes. In the words of Gaston Bachelard, a writer Clipson admires, “Sometimes the transactions between small and large multiply, have repercussions.” Clipson’s intensive approach in both shooting and projecting his work definitely angles towards a repercussive cinema.

Compound Eyes, a series of short subjects created with musician Jefre Cantu-Ledesma during a recent residency at the San Francisco Exploratorium, puts a fine point on the phenomenological tuning of Clipson’s art. The images envision insect life in a manner unlike traditional nature documentaries, with Clipson’s suggestible camera swallowed in an unfamiliar network of spatial relations and glistening surfaces. Urban architectures emerge in juxtaposition, freshly uncertain in the face of our new sense of scale and environmental experience. Clipson tells me about chasing “the startling fact of the insect’s existence” one recent sunny afternoon. “To understand the animal,” he says, “you have to understand how it understands space — which we can’t do. What’s important to me than is sensitizing the view and creating an awareness of how the space is traversed.”

Discovery is primary to Clipson’s work, not only in his cinematographic concentration of visual phenomena, but also in his oblique tangents upon highly specific shards of film history, and especially in his approach to live performance. The shows place Clipson’s footage in dynamic relation to music performed by artists equally concerned with dynamics of time and space (many of them record for Cantu-Ledesma’s Root Strata label). For the audience, it means a good shot at a heightened state of being.

In all iterations, Clipson’s images are delighted by the ephemerality of that which passes before the camera (“I like the idea that [the insects] leave very quickly and that it’s this continual chase rather than something conditioned”). At the same time, the films realize a remarkable persistence of vision. Clipson’s open channeling of inspiration makes his films as instructive as they are beautiful; it also delivers the good news that there’s more to come.

Frame missing

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FILM Of all Elliot Lavine’s noir programs for the Roxie, “Not Necessarily Noir” is both the toughest sell and the most creative from a curatorial perspective. There are two programs in this abbreviated “Not Necessarily Noir” run that should have built-in audiences — a slam dunk Joan Crawford double bill of Johnny Guitar (1954) and Female on the Beach (1955), and a full course of Ed Wood — but the terrifically nervous movies at the start of the series do the most to stake out its intuitive terrain.

As a thorough revision of Robert Siodmak’s classic adaptation of the Hemingway story, Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964) is a fine place to begin. Siegel’s remake was initially contracted for television, but that fell through when the director littered the film with mean specks of violence; a sniper sequence seemed in especially poor taste after the Kennedy assassination. If they only knew: in the movie version it’s Ronald Reagan pulling the trigger.

The wild casting combinations are dynamite in Siegel’s hands: the future president and John Cassavetes brawl and killer pair Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager pursue the story of a big heist. Marvin’s hired gun wants to know what made former racecar driver Johnny North (Cassavetes) die without a fight. Gulager’s goofy psychopath needs the suggestion of a million bucks to get interested. Ducking Siodmak’s smooth noir style, Siegel gives us hard daylight, cheap motels, and actors sweating through their makeup. The director approaches fatalism matter-of-factly, leaving the expressionistic language of seduction and madness without much purchase. With characteristic perversity, Siegel has Johnny accuse femme fatale Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson, a Kennedy friend) of betrayal when his head is wrapped up following an auto accident. It should be an emotional peak and we can’t even see his eyes.

Against the odds of its title, the unjustly obscure Brainstorm (1965) charts a well-plotted crackup. With its glinting surfaces, jazz score, and debauched party scenes, the William Conrad film can evoke a pulp La Dolce Vita (1960) or La Notte (1961). Jim (Jeffrey Hunter) is a chiseled intellectual manning room-sized computers. In a dreamlike prologue, he discovers a beautiful woman (Anne Francis) wrapped in mink in the backseat of her car. She’s unconscious, and her car is parked in the path of a train. After the rescue, Jim finds out she belongs to Jim’s boss Cort Benson (Dana Andrews in a fine menacing turn). A little later Cort finds out the two youngsters have been playing around and uses his power to cast Jim as a lunatic. Jim begins to play along when he realizes it could make for a persuasive alibi for murder.

Brainstorm never ventures into the underworld, but Conrad’s squeezed widescreen framing gives the sense of being underwater. Along with the hard horizontals of modernist offices and passing references to the Nuremberg Trials, the film’s self-conscious tripling of female threat (the traditional femme fatale, a woman psychologist, a hired hand who accuses Jim of lewd phone calls) insinuates deep pathological reserves of noir anxiety. Brainstorm‘s disintegration isn’t quite up to Shock Corridor (1963) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962), but they’re all stirring the same pot.

If Clint Eastwood’s avenging cop in Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971) was a neo-noir lodestar, his directorial debut of that same year pushed in a different direction. In Play Misty for Me, an extreme amplification of the femme fatale into a castrating bitch (many fatal attractions followed) obscures his character’s masculine code. As Dave, Eastwood appears every bit the New Hollywood playboy driving along the Pacific Coast Highway to his nighttime disc jockey gig. After the show he has a drink with his barkeep friend (Siegel, naturally) and soon looks to pick up a swell-looking babe down the bar (Jessica Walter). Back at her place Evelyn admits she’s the one always calling in with a request for “Misty,” and things only get stickier from there.

Dave grasps at Evelyn’s movie-romance psychosis with the same hard stare reserved for bad dudes in the spaghetti westerns and crime movies, but here this front signals disbelief, frustration, and ineffectuality. Instead of trapping his onscreen persona in the frame, as in the classical noir, Eastwood pictures himself enjoying a false mastery of space. Dave strolls with a good girl in sylvan nature (shades of 1947’s Out of the Past), but the unnervingly distant framings anticipate the knockout moment when Evelyn’s hand strikes menacingly into the foreground of one of these shots. Play Misty for Me isn’t necessarily noir, but Eastwood’s cunning extension of the “deadly is the female” trope doesn’t play nice with the audience’s identification — and that’s maybe the coolest killer of all.

“NOT NECESSARILY NOIR II”

Nov. 4-8, $5–$9.75

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St., SF

(415) 863-1087

www.roxie.com

 

French twists

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FILM The San Francisco Film Society’s annual French cinema roundup stretches its national mandate a bit this year. Take the Dardenne brothers’ The Kid with a Bike, one of the best films of the year regardless of country of origin but like the rest of their work particularly fixed in the (French speaking) Belgian working class. It begins in motion, as adolescent Cyril (newcomer Thomas Doret) desperately redials his father’s disconnected number from a foster home. He refuses to accept a social worker’s calm explanation that his father has left without a forwarding address, breaking away for the first of many wild flights. Already we’re navigating a complex identification with the boy, rationally removed from his situation at the same time that we are viscerally attached to it.

The Kid with a Bike paints a remarkably sure portrait of adolescent pain. Several critics have made much of Cyril’s tendency to bite, but I found those moments where he simply shuts down even more disquieting, in no small part because the narrative flow is temporality blocked. Though Cyril is eventually given refuge, it’s as difficult for the boy to accept a hairdresser’s kindness as it is for him to resist a neighborhood tough’s illusory promise of self-emancipation (the actors playing these peripheral roles are excellent, layering coming-of-age formulas with fallibility and grace). The latter conscripts Cyril for a violent act, one which in spite of its petty nature holds enormous consequence in the narrative’s web of responsibility and guilt. It is difficult to imagine a contemporary Hollywood movie maintaining such moral complexity in the face of a child’s loss of innocence.

Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki maintains his particular approach to faces and pacing in his first Gallic effort, though Le Havre consciously raises the ghosts of French cinema, specifically postwar resistance dramas and the neighborly realism of filmmakers like Marcel Pagnol. The director accents the timeless quality of the titular port with his classical framings and muted color palette even as his story directly refers to modern Europe’s anxieties. An elderly shoeshine man freighted with the name Marcel Marx (André Wilms) discovers a young African boy hiding out from the immigration authorities under Le Havre’s docks. With his wife ill in the hospital, Marx takes the boy in, eventually raising funds to smuggle him on to his mother across the English Channel.

The community that coheres around Marx is familiar from any number of partisan allegories: there are the good Samaritans who help Marx shelter the boy; the faceless nosy neighbor who calls the police; the world-weary souls at the neighborhood bar; the leery inspector who seems hesitant to carry out unjust orders; the misty invocations of the past and hard talk of money; the final Casablanca-like rapprochement between Marx and the inspector. A restrained melodrama, Le Havre is that rare film where everything that turns out right suggests the opposite. The artifice of the style and plotting are meant to produce a hesitation, certainly, but the remainder is an honest yearning for justice. If it seems odd that it would take a Finnish director to call upon France’s better angels, that’s part of what gives Kaurismäki’s traditionalism just the right touch of provocation.

Also worth checking out is Pierre Schoeller’s fascinating train wreck of an information age political thriller, The Minister, starring longtime Dardennes player Olivier Gourmet as a compromised bureaucrat. The Long Falling, Martin Provost’s second match up with actress Yolanda Moreau after Séraphine (2008), purposefully shuttles from a hardened Belgian village to an unmoored Brussels and features Agnès Godard’s characteristically probing camerawork, itself a pride of French cinema. I wasn’t able to preview Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye First Love, but if the director’s wise and poignant second feature, The Father of My Children (2009), is any indication, it might well prove another highlight of an already strong French Cinema Now program.

“FRENCH CINEMA NOW”

Thurs/27-Tues/ 2, $12–<\d>$13

SFFS | New People Cinema

1746 Post, SF

www.sffs.org

 

Light years

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FILM A pioneer of what film scholar Gene Youngblood called “expanded cinema,” San Francisco artist Jordan Belson developed his majestic form of abstract cinema over six decades of work. He died last month at 85, the same day as George Kuchar. Belson worked on a very different plane than Kuchar: his films were non-representational, long in the making, and were for many years out of circulation owing to his rigorous standards. The prints showing at a special memorial screening at the Pacific Film Archive come from the Center for Visual Music, a Los Angeles-based organization carrying on extensive preservation work of Belson’s work. Choreographed along the lines of rhythm, texture, frequency and color, Belson’s assured geometric forms tend to evoke sublime metaphors of subatomic particles, space odysseys and mandala wheels. For me, they create a startling awareness of cinema’s weightlessness (and for less than The Tree of Life‘s catering costs).

Belson had deep roots in the sprawling avant-garde mapped in Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000 (University of California Press). After graduating from UC Berkeley a painter in 1946, he became enamored with cinema’s purely graphic possibilities after being exposed to visual music by the likes of Oskar Fischinger and Norman McLaren at Frank Stauffacher’s legendary “Art in Cinema” series at the old San Francisco Museum of Art. Along with his early forays in animation, Belson shot Christopher Maclaine’s The End (1953), a fruitful case of clashing sensibilities.

Belson took a great leap forward with a series of light shows he orchestrated with electronic music composer Henry Jacobs in the late 1950s. The Vortex Concerts created a sensation at the Morrison Planetarium in Golden Gate Park: “People were just ripe for it,” Belson explained in an interview with author Scott MacDonald. “It” was a carefully articulated sensory immersion based upon the planetarium’s advanced technology (including a then novel star projector), Belson’s extraordinary sensitivity to the kinesthetics of light, and Jacobs’ innovative compositions for rotational speakers.

You get an inkling of what they were up to in Allures (1961), an enveloping film that grew out of the Vortex Concerts. The mostly circular figures radiate out, rotate, recede, divide and multiply. These movements surface micro-calibrations of tonality and rhythm in the music. A gravitational focus towards the center of the frame draws in the eye and makes those moments when the entire frame glimmers with points of light frankly overwhelming. The titles of some of Belson’s other films give you a sense of his energy-seeking objectives: Séance (1959), Chakra (1972), Cycles (1974, co-produced with Stephen Beck), Music of the Spheres (1977), and so on.

Belson preferred not to discuss his practical methods in public — “I like a convincing illusion,” he told MacDonald — but it’s clear from watching a selection of his films that his technique evolved over time. In Light (1973), a piece inspired by the electromagnetic spectrum, Belson conveys color as a matter of temperature rather than discrete points of energy. And in his final masterwork, Epilogue (2005), the light particles of Allures have been replaced by billowing supernova clouds of color subtly illuminating Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead.” Given Belson’s lifelong channeling of the cosmos, it’s fitting that this video composition was partially funded by NASA’s art program.

The Center for Visual Music has issued an excellent DVD including several of the abovementioned films (Jordan Belson: 5 Essential Titles), but Belson’s work takes on a different life in the cinema — among other revelations, the darkness surrounding the screen is superbly vivid in light of Allures‘ fireworks. “I am essentially an artist of the inner image,” the filmmaker told MacDonald. Film is not the most logical tool to accomplish this ends, but Belson undoubtedly made the medium his own. 

“JORDAN BELSON: FILMS SACRED AND PROFANE”

Wed/19, 7:30 p.m., $5.50–$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk

(510) 642-5249

bampfa.berkeley.edu

 

Difficult loves

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM The critic Quintín began his review of Mysteries of Lisbon in last winter’s Cinema Scope by noting that the film’s lavish production and strong reception marked a welcome turnaround for its director Raúl Ruiz, who in the years prior struggled with funding and illness. Though produced for Portuguese television, the film won awards and raves on the festival circuit. Suddenly, Ruiz seemed more assured his rightful status as a master. A year later Mysteries of Lisbon arrives for a rather miraculous theatrical run — but Ruiz is gone. He died in August 2011, having directed many more films than his 70 years.

Ruiz’s films have typically been the province of hardcore cinephiles, but this splendid epic holds wider appeal. It’s difficult to think of another movie that so satisfyingly captures the intricacies and volatilities of the 19th century novel — anyone enthralled by the teeming creations of Balzac and Dickens will find that Mysteries of Lisbon‘s four-and-a-half hours stream by. Ruiz was no stranger to the 19th century — his recent films included Klimt (2006) and the Proustian Time Regained (1999) — but the ornately plotted trio of novellas by Portuguese author Camilo Castelo Branco which supply these mysteries seem specially tailored to the director’s affinity for involved narrations.

The story sweeps across dozens of characters and several generations of doomed love, revenge plots, disguised identities, uncertain parentages, and religious vows. We even glimpse the Napoleonic Wars. It’s gripping stuff, in other words, and Ruiz meant it that way — the film refutes the idea that an analytical narration style upbraids narrative pleasure (a cornerstone of much structuralist film theory). One hesitates to launch into describing Mysteries of Lisbon‘s plot, not only because there’s such an awful lot of it, but also because it risks underselling the brilliant means by which information is divulged.

It begins with an adolescent searching out his origins. Pedro da Silva lives under the care of kindly and knowing Father Dinis. The boy becomes dimly aware of his mother, Angela de Lima, when he’s sick with fever (realized with a neat impressionistic distortion). In the film’s first flashback, to the near past, we learn of her cruel treatment at the hands of her husband, the Count of Santa Bárbara. She eventually flees to the church, whereupon her history of misfortune tumbles out in a deeper flashback narrated by Dinis: her passion for Pedro’s father and the iron disapproval of her father, the Marquis de Montezelos. After contracting the elder Pedro’s murder to his thug, Knife Eater, Marquis arranges for the man to snuff out his daughter’s bastard child at birth. A gypsy bargains for the baby’s life from Knife Eater, and that gypsy, we later learn, is one and the same as Father Dinis.

The priest’s shadowy transformations provide a recurring template for Mysteries of Lisbon, as does his eventual commitment to God. An intermission is shrewdly positioned so that the beginning of the second half begins with another origin story — Dinis’s own. The Samsaric wheel of lost love and filial abandonment turns again. A new set of characters emerge, including a mysterious capitalist posing as a Brazilian import who eventually marries the Count of Santa Barbara’s mistress, Eugénia, and takes a peculiar interest in Pedro’s well-being. His former lover, the bewitching Duchess of Cliton, lives for revenge and arouses the idealistic romance of Pedro, now a young man: it seems we’ve spun through the past long enough for him to age.

Delirious yet? That narrow introduction doesn’t begin to convey the vertiginous experience of Mysteries of Lisbon‘s discoveries and resonances. By moving steadily further from the young Pedro’s frame of reference, Ruiz suggests that every doomed love is its own even as they are invariably connected. The immersive nature of the flashbacks all but obliterates any semblance of Pedro’s narrative through line, and leaves us vulnerable to alluring déjà vu (key repetitions of specific objects, framings, and dialog within different spheres of the plot). If Ruiz is partly poking fun at literary convention by repeatedly framing eavesdroppers in the extreme foreground and backgrounds of the frame, for instance, he’s also giving us tangible figures of the thread that connects these disparate stories.

Ruiz’s narrations are commonly likened to labyrinths, but for Mysteries of Lisbon‘s vigorous expansion I reach for the cosmos: one luminous sphere rotates another which in turn rotates a larger system, the whole of it spreading outwards in all directions at once. There are many other ways one could model the narrative’s abundance — in interviews Ruiz cited the mathematical concept of overflow — but the point is not so many films inspire this kind of reflection. And if complexity is one measure of the film’s greatness, flexibility is surely another. Throughout, Ruiz demonstrates that a distant long take need not be emotionally remote; that a shot can reveal as it conceals; that dramatic irony can fluctuate, giving knowledge itself an almost textural quality.

In one of the few scenes set outside a gilded room or convent, the older Pedro searches out his mother’s grave. There he meets his grandfather, the formerly imposing Marquis, now a deluded blind beggar. It’s the umpteenth case of a character cropping up in a different mask, and this one seems the most obvious kind of poetic justice. As the Marquis exits, his beggar companion approaches Pedro. He redundantly recounts the Marquis’ fall, but then adds his own insight, that nobility’s great tragedies are simply the stuff of life for beggars. Ruiz remains light on his feet well past the four hour mark, always prepared with another shift in perspective. Mysteries of Lisbon is not the kind of masterpiece you expect of an old man, but then Ruiz clearly had little use for such a simplistic concept of time. 

MYSTERIES OF LISBON opens Sept. 30 in San Francisco.

Vive Vigo

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FILM The beatification of Jean Vigo as cinema’s Romantic poet — only four films before tuberculosis carried him off at 29 — is one of the less interesting things about him. As myth it’s maudlin and a little corny, nothing like his films which won’t sit still long enough for you to call them immortal. Whether structured as an exploded city symphony (1930’s À Propos de Nice), commissioned portrait (1931’s Taris), anarchic boarding school farce (1933’s Zéro de Conduite) or multivalent love story (1934’s L’Atalante), they crack open the known world and flash epiphanies like jewels before the camera.

Vigo’s most famous sequences — the pillow-fight processional in Zéro de Conduite, the lovers’ séance in L’Atalante — are lyrical outbursts expressing deep yearning. That desire can be sensual or social; the toppling effect is the same. One might take a page from Vigo’s first film, À Propos de Nice (co-directed with Boris Kaufman, Dziga Vertov’s brother and a brilliant cinematographer in his own right), and consider the intense flux of Vigo’s films as pushing towards carnival. The film’s witty comparison of the idle rich and vibrant working class of Nice goes up in smoke with the fade-in to the street fair. The social fabric suddenly tears, egged on by lusty low-angle shots and intoxicating cuts (more than that, Vigo himself appears doing the cancan).

In Vigo’s little-seen short Taris, the titular French swimmer and early media celebrity demonstrates strokes while explaining their form in voice-over. This instructive track is periodically interrupted by the filmmaker’s beautiful (and at times absurd) close-ups and slow-motion shots. In the end the libidinal again wins out, as Vigo takes advantage of a portal window to film Taris underwater turning corkscrews and circles. This sweet celebration of the body is recast as the more famous underwater idyll in L’Atalante, but here seeing Taris at play here provides a striking contrast from his more regimented athleticism. Stepping outside the rules of the sport, he doesn’t even need to come up for air.

Plenty of ink has already been spilled on Zéro de Conduite‘s joyful student revolt, though I’ve always appreciated that when the emboldened kids hail garbage down on the authorities of church and state, some of the figures below are actual puppets. Even when Vigo’s films are deadly serious, they don’t take themselves too seriously. The censors certainly did: the film was banned for its many blasphemies, though it surfaced sooner than the long shipwrecked L’Atalante. The story of a married couple coming together and apart on a barge is simplicity itself, and yet Vigo embroiders it with delicate shifts in mood and setting. The carnival spirit is here embodied by indelible Père Jules (Michel Simon), the salty sailor who whether playing a record with his finger, trying on a dress, clutching a litter of kittens or showing off his tattoos generates a turbulent vitality that’s a full partner in the film’s romance. L’Atalante is a giving film, with a musical sense of character, a wondrous balancing of melancholy and mischief, and always something new to tell you about love.

There are some who might grumble about the obvious irony of seeing Vigo’s freewheeling work packaged as a tidy commodity, but it’s humbling to think what earlier generations of film lovers would have made at being able to stuff his collected works in their coat pockets (also, Criterion’s transfers are stellar). It’s marvelous being able to explore these particular films at leisure — which is to say every which way. You see all the explosions of fantasy into real life and vice versa, and you think how unusual for someone to seek freedom not only in but through cinema.

Green dreams

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FILM Has the landfill, junkyard, and lowly dumpster supplanted the factory as a site of documentary interest and even inspiration? Yerba Buena Center for the Arts features two 2010 docs this week to add to the growing list of recent films centering on scavenging, gleaning, dumpster diving, trash humping, and scrapping — activities illustrating resourcefulness in the shadow of colossal waste.

Scrappers zeroes in on the workaday routines and liabilities facing two laboring subjects, Oscar and Otis, good men who cruise Chicago’s South Side for scrap metal. The film’s three directors spent a couple of years in the passenger seat, long enough for their verité portrait of the scrappers’ lives at work to be anchored in extenuating circumstances: a deportation scare for Oscar, a hospital stay for Otis, and most significantly the collapse of scrap prices as a result of dwindling home construction (the same ton of metal that sold for $200–<\d>$300 in 2007 only brought in 20 bucks in 2008).

Without recourse to a voice-over, Scrappers details economic unrest as well as the complex race and class hierarchies of Chicago’s scrap scene. This is all secondary, however, to the film’s enduring interest in learning how Oscar and Otis actually go about their work — noteworthy in a documentary field crowded with predigested arguments. The filmmakers take liberties in editing together the scrappers’ talk into poetic monologues, but it’s a small price for granting them autonomy in defining not only the necessities but also the dispensations of their work.

While Scrappers works to convey layers of ongoing experience, the Oscar-nominated Waste Land is witness to an exceptional intervention. The film follows Vik Muniz, a successful Brooklyn-based artist originally from São Paolo, as he spearheads a collaborative art project in Jardim Gramacho, a gigantic landfill outside Rio de Janeiro. Muniz first contemplates the site from his Brooklyn studio using land art’s modern surveying tools, Google Earth and YouTube. Once on the ground, his initial disbelief at the scale of the landfill gives way to the more modest realization that many of the pickers working there don’t view themselves as the wretched of the earth.

Waste Land director Lucy Walker omits Muniz’s selection of a handful of the pickers as collaborators and subjects — a thorny process, one imagines — instead fleshing out the backstories of the (admittedly remarkable) chosen ones. They gather material from the dump to help Muniz fashion their iconic portraits back in the studio, with the proceeds of the finished work benefiting the pickers’ labor association.

Muniz’s giving act is more personal and sustained than a benefit concert, but the difference is one of quality not kind. He repeatedly stresses the project as a joint effort in making art of garbage, but the real magic consists of turning garbage into something priced as art, a conversion which undoubtedly helps the pickers but also solidifies Muniz’s privileged position in the world marketplace. In view of this, it’s worth pointing out that many other artists have adapted scavenger aesthetics as a means of dissenting from patronage systems (art or otherwise). In 1965, for instance, Brazilian director Glauber Rocha issued his “Aesthetic of Hunger” manifesto to define Third Cinema’s difference. Some years later filmmakers associated with the Tropicália movement went a step further and called for an “Aesthetics of Garbage.” Needless to say, they envisioned something different than Waste Land‘s sympathetic detachment. It’s not a fair comparison perhaps, but days after seeing the film I’m still bothered by the way it maintains a wry distance from Muniz’s earnest struggle for moral clarity while itself indulging in artsy portraiture of the pickers at work (scored to death by Moby). In any case, magnificent unsigned art grows out of landfill closer to home at the Albany Bulb. There’s a documentary about that too — Bum’s Paradise (2003).

TRASHED: TWO FILMS ABOUT GARBAGE

Scrappers, Thurs/15, 7:30 p.m.; Waste Land, Sun/18, 2 p.m., $8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, S.F.

(415) 978-2787

www.ybca.org

 

Desolation angels

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FILM Wanda (1970) takes a long time to settle into anything resembling a plot, but the wayward scenes at the start of the film have a remarkable exactness to them. In one, the title character (played by director Barbara Loden) walks into a dingy bar looking to end the day early. She’s fresh from divorce court, where she lost her kids, merely acceding to the judgments of her ex-husband and the court. As the bartender puts a bottle of beer and glass on her table, a greasy lump at the bar says he’ll take care of the drink. The unsolicited offer clouds Wanda’s face; she sips her drink resigned to what it means. A rude cut takes us to a spent motel room where Wanda sleeps naked alone in pale afternoon light. The guy from the bar tiptoes around the room to leave, but he makes a noise setting Wanda to hurriedly dress herself, pointlessly calling after him to wait. The plainness of the scene’s despair tells us it’s nothing new for her.

Characterization emerges in the fluidity of situation and behavior, melancholy in an unanchored camera and stark ellipses. Once its protagonist takes up with an amateur thief who radiates nervous energy, Wanda unspools as an inverted Gun Crazy (1950), its unsentimental portrait of a female drifter looking ahead to films like Jeanne Dielman (1975), Vagabond (1985), Safe (1995), and Kelly Reichardt’s River of Grass (1994) and Wendy and Lucy (2008). Wanda screens in a restoration print as part of a bountiful overview at the Pacific Film Archive called “The Outsiders: New Hollywood in the Seventies.”

Drawing inspiration from The Last Great American Picture Show, an excellent anthology edited by Alexander Horwath to accompany an earlier retrospective at the Austrian Film Museum, the PFA series shifts the historical narrative of New Hollywood from movie brats to unnamed margins. Celebrity-driven surveys of the same period (like Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) miss the congruence of by-the-teeth filmmaking and borderline characters that helps to define the PFA series. Ample room is made for those filmmakers whose careers couldn’t hold a straight line (Loden’s career as a director began and ended with Wanda), and familiar landmarks like Mean Streets and Badlands (both 1973) are considered alongside lesser known but no less groundbreaking character studies like Dusty and Sweets McGee (1971), Ice (1970) and The Heartbreak Kid (1972).

The swift scene of Wanda getting picked up at the bar establishes a few leitmotifs for “The Outsiders.” You notice right away that the crummy motel rooms and bars are the real thing, and that an actor’s vanity is never spared a frank look at a character’s worn down body and face. The incidental nature of the camera placement, long duration of scenes, and dispersive spread of sound deepen the melancholy reality of these appearances. A verité-style handheld camera takes single measure of the scene, registering the immediacy of behavior but stopping short of slicing up the conflict into easy points of identification (Wanda cinematographer Nicholas T. Proferes cut his teeth with Robert Drew’s pioneering documentary crew in the early 1960s). Also borrowed from observational documentary is an interest in private, semi-coherent forms of speech; the stories are as much told through gesture and movement. You constantly feel on the precipice of emotions, watching as they form and stagnate in a languid real time that makes a character’s exhaustion palpable in the theater.

Most of these movies are indeed populated by outsiders, though the meaning of the word shifts from film to film. There are plenty of figures of hedonism (memorably, Rip Torn’s hard-driving country western singer in 1972’s Payday), but so too are there close portraits of the lived differences of gender, race, class and age — Wanda, but also Killer of Sheep (1977), Bush Mama (1975), and Over the Edge (1979). Unlike Easy Rider (1969), the film typically cited as launching a hundred New Hollywood productions, these movies don’t valorize the outsider towards an obvious political morality. A film like Killer of Sheep is delicate because it recognizes the social constraints of the central character’s life while at the same time respecting the fullness of his winnowed existence. The same long-take camera style which expresses pessimism is also left open to moments of ragged beauty that escape political allegory.

The exciting vision of radical heroism offered by Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) is the exception that makes it easier to imagine how Wanda‘s brittle poetry of despair might have disappointed feminists at the time. Wanda is left alone again at the end of the film, seemingly unable to live with or without a man. There’s a glimmer of hope when another woman invites her inside a raucous roadhouse where mixed company drink and smoke and laugh as a string duo stomp out a joyful sound. But through it all Wanda remains withdrawn, eating and drinking as if someone might at any moment snatch the food out of her hands. The film ends with a freeze frame of her blank face as the music slowly drains away on the soundtrack. The shot holds a mirror up to our desire for her story to mean something, our wish for the succor of tragedy or redemption. Loden’s film instead narrows in on the insoluble nature of the character’s existence, holding the wreckage of her life in view with both pitiless reserve and tender regard.

THE OUTSIDERS: NEW HOLLYWOOD CINEMA IN THE SEVENTIES

Sept. 2-Oct.27, $5.50–<\d>$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-5249

bampfa.berkeley.edu

Buggin’ out

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Actor Michael Rapaport probably didn’t set out to make a hip-hop Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004), but that’s pretty much where his portrait of A Tribe Called Quest ends up. The first half of Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest is predictably worshipful, slathering on low angles and slow motion to cover mediocre live shows. More effectively, Rapaport traces the Queens group’s brief incubation period and subsequent breakthroughs in what would later be called alternative or, more obnoxiously, conscious hip-hop. A slew of notable followers and contemporaries toast Tribe’s first three albums, but by the time Rapaport catches up to the group’s 2008 reunion even their longtime friends De La Soul are wishing they’d call the whole thing off.

The documentary slides into the Monster zone of hurt feelings and passive aggressive behavior in accounting for the group’s split after their inappropriately named 1998 album, The Love Movement. Phife Dawg and Q-Tip are the warring egos, though perennially slighted Phife is really no match for the imperially cool Tip. DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad is the Kirk Hammett of the outfit, looking on helplessly as the two bigger personalities make a mess of things. Tribe’s transgressions seem wholesome compared to Metallica’s binging (we hear a lot about sugar addiction from Phife, the self-proclaimed “funky diabetic”), but it’s similarly a case of childhood friendships distorted by success.

It’s not that surprising that the recent glut of cookie-cutter rock docs has for the most part left hip-hop untouched — someone like Jay-Z hardly needs the help of a bozo with Final Cut Pro to spin out self-mythologies. Rapaport’s portrait is utterly conventional, but there’s still novelty in a story about aging in hip-hop. Because Q-Tip basically just wants to talk music and Ali seems genuinely shy of the spotlight, turbulent Phife emerges as the emotional center of the film. He shakes off his wife’s suggestion that he should see a therapist, but that’s very much the mode of his rambling address to the camera. “I love hip-hop, but as it is now I could do with or without it,” Phife says at one point. That’s not what we expect from a fan’s notes, and Beats, Rhymes & Life is the stronger for it.

Those who appreciate Tribe’s flowing soul sound will find interesting tidbits spread thinly across the film: roll calls of the original legends of New York City hip-hop; fond reminiscences of the group’s Afrocentric costuming (“Some questionable shit,” per Black Thought); Phife’s breakout “Yo!” at the top of “Buggin’ Out”; and especially Q-Tip’s refined taste for loops (he gives a great reenactment of discovering the sublime groove for “Can I Kick It?” on an old Lonnie Smith record). One would happily trade 10 minutes of mediocre performance footage for more production insights (Ron Carter’s contribution to the Low End Theory hardly rates a mention), though Pharrell Williams’ rhapsodic praise goes some ways toward plugging the gap.

Rapaport doesn’t pursue more interesting questions of race and politics that naturally follow the band’s crossover appeal. And as is so often the case with hagiographies, discussion of broader musical trends comes to a halt when the group in question hits the big time. A stray exception is when bookish Questlove mentions that Tribe’s third album, Midnight Marauders, and the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), came out on the same day in 1993 — the last great day of classic hip-hop according to him, though one could just as easily read it as a sea change away from Tribe’s good vibes.

BEATS, RHYMES & LIFE: THE TRAVELS OF A TRIBE CALLED QUEST opens Fri/15 in Bay Area theaters.

 

What goes around Hong Sang-soo disassembles the love triangle in “Oki’s Movie”

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The drab realism of Hong Sang-soo’s films is more testing apparatus than window. His romantic narratives foreground structural operations (doublings, loops, intersections) in a gamely way; a set template of characters and situations also contributes to the impression of his films as moral prisms.

Oki’s Movie, one of only three movies the South Korean auteur has released in the last two years, is split into four sections of perplexing relation, but which together establish a lucid distance from a conventional love triangle. Doubters look upon Hong’s prodigious output as evidence of artistic complacency, while admirers point to the centrality of revision in his work (it’s the process by which he peels the onion of art in life and life in art). What sometimes gets lost in the discussion is that Hong’s narratives still have a delightful capacity to surprise. Oki’s Movie looks like it was shot fast and cheap, but its fluid shifts in perspective and rueful examination of the storytelling impulse are very fine indeed.

Oki’s Movie begins on a telling note of displacement when the wife of Jingu (Lee Seon-kyun) wife calls him by the wrong name as they leave their apartment. He’s the familiar Hong type: a ragingly insecure filmmaker-professor who interacts with everyone, whether stranger or wife, with the same grubby defensiveness. Within a few short scenes, we’re already launched into the inevitable whiskey-fueled meltdown, as Jingu impoliticly confronts his mentor, Professor Song (Moon Sung-guen), with another faculty member’s accusations. The pacing of this long take degradation is characteristically precise, with Jingu’s narrow perspective neatly reflected in Hong’s zooms and pans.

Jingu feels threatened by three women in the film’s first act (his wife, a stranger who snaps his photo, and a young woman who confronts him with a previous romantic entanglement during a Q&A following one of his films), but none are named Oki. By the time we begin to wonder about this, the opening credits are rolling again. Confusingly, we begin this second segment with Jingu and Song watching the end credits of a film (Jingu’s) on a computer monitor. We wonder if the previous act was a film-within-the-film, but this seems paradoxical when we realize that there has been a shift back in time. Here Jingu is Song’s student rather than his junior colleague. In any case, Oki (Jung Yumi) is just outside the door.

We can tell from her charged hello with Song that there’s something between them. A moment later Jingu lurches into his obdurate seduction. Eventually he cajoles Oki into bed, though Hong’s slipshod narrative keeps us from assigning any kind of finality to their embrace.

Even as we expect the narrative to upend the male initiative, it still comes as a tonic to have the movie turned over to Oki for the film’s final, eponymously titled act. In voiceover, Oki sets up the kind of controlled experiment Hong thrives upon: she will cut between two identical park strolls taken with both men to better judge her relationship with each.

One of Hong’s modes of indirection is to plant ideas which could easily be taken as reflections upon his own filmmaking in the mouths of all his characters. He surely identifies with both Jingu’s narcissism and Oki’s analytical rigor, in other words, but it’s only in this last segment that Hong admits a degree of lyricism into the film. The heretofore flat winter light softens and arches towards twilight. There’s real poignancy to Oki’s reflections, but it only comes when we’re most deeply embedded in the artifice of Hong’s narrative construction. “Things repeat themselves with differences I can’t understand,” she muses. Having specified the conditions of the repetitions doesn’t make resolution any less elusive. The only solution is to go on making films.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_T9f8o-HTA

A mother’s touch

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM The Rome of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s spirited second feature is that of the outer rings, the transitional borgata where ugly high-rise apartments interrupt wild grass and occasional industry. Pasolini, who lived for many years in such an outskirt with his mother, pointedly blurs development and ruin in his fluid camera observations of this liminal zone, much as he blurs the figure of mother and lover in Anna Magnani’s titular heroine. Like Mildred Pierce, Mamma Roma wishes prosperity for her child at any cost. She moves him from what she deems a rural backwater to the borgata for a shot at a “decent life,” which for her means selling vegetables rather than sex. Their new home is cruel in many ways, however. Ettore (Ettore Garofolo) slides toward delinquency, and soon an ex-lover presses Mamma Roma back into prostitution.

The basis of this mustachioed man’s hold on the proud woman is unclear, but it’s enough that we grasp the indentured terms of their relationship. The gaps in time and exposition feed the film’s tonal volatility. Poignant coming-of-age scenes in the grass slide into Magnani’s loud declamations, sociological analysis intermingles with passionate iconoclasm, all too brief glimpses of joy give way to degradation, and startling cuts between scenes set the whole thing aquiver. The basic dilemma is between critical detachment and confessional intimacy (the poet’s taste in men ran to young street kids like Ettore, and he had a worshipful relationship with his own mother, going so far as to cast her as Mary in his 1964 film, The Gospel According to St. Matthew). Mamma Roma is a study of the Italian postwar landscape, to be sure, but one which extends to the realms of desire and emotion.

Much of this comes down to the casting of Magnani, then entering the twilight of her career after a successful stint in Hollywood (where she nabbed the 1955 Oscar for her role in The Rose Tattoo, written expressly for her by a smitten Tennessee Williams). Jean-Luc Godard also made a film about a prostitute with an actress named Anna in 1962 (Vivre Sa Vie), but whereas he needed to make an imaginative leap to place Mlle. Karina in film history (her character goes to see fellow Dane Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc), Magnani requires no such transference: her singular career thread the relative truths of neorealism and the Method. As Pasolini’s chosen symbol of self-sacrifice and Rome itself, perhaps the signal reference is her death scene in Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945).

Pasolini documents an economic occupation rather than a military one, and the spiritual malaise that hangs over the picture is more diffuse than in Rossellini’s picture. Nothing illustrates the director’s bending neorealism so well as a pair of recessive tracking shots of Mamma Roma walking the night. The shots are underexposed so that the street lights appears abstracted and the men who emerge from darkness as ghosts — or is she the ghost, persisting in her monologues no matter who’s listening? Done with a poverty of means, these sequences nonetheless conjure a kind of spiritual possession in the grip of material disgrace.

There are glimmers of Pasolini’s later films in Mamma Roma (a stray mention of Dante’s Circle of Shit flashing forward to his notorious 1975 movie, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom), but its most significant innovation may lie in its yoking melodrama to a caustic modernist sensibility, thereby preparing a whole vein of art cinema later epitomized by R.W. Fassbinder. Mamma Roma‘s lessons may well have been absorbed, but it still looks tender and dire as ever. *

MAMMA ROMA

Thurs/2 and Sat/4, 7:30 p.m;

Sun/5, 2 p.m.; $6–$8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787

www.ybca.org

 

Fully loaded

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arts@sfbg.com

There is such a thing as festival fatigue, but you’d do well to forget it with the ambitious programs ruling the 16th Street corridor this weekend. The Roxie launches Elliot Lavine’s latest dive into film noir’s deep end, while down at the Victoria San Francisco Cinematheque caps its spring season with the second annual Crossroads festival, a veritable bonanza of experimental cinema. I haven’t seen many of the 50-odd works being shown, but the quality of the ones I have makes me think that I wouldn’t trade Crossroads for Cannes.

The fest opens Thursday, May 12 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art with the culminating presentation of “Radical Light,” the epic panorama of local alternative cinemas that has lined Cinematheque and the Pacific Film Archive calendars since September 2010. This evening showcases rarely screened works by “Radical Light” mainstays (the Bruces Baillie and Conner, Gunvor Nelson, Scott Stark) as well as the premiere of a new film by Will Hindle, whose topsy-turvy Chinese Firedrill (1968) was one of the gems of a recent program at the museum.

Opening night includes at least one city symphony (Timoleon Wilkins’ Chinatown Sketch), a form expanded upon in several subsequent Crossroads shows. Jeanne Liotta’s aptly titled Crosswalk transcribes an Easter street processional in Loisaida, a Latino enclave of New York City. Liotta, an ambitious filmmaker who ranges over the history of science and the nature of belief, will be at the Victoria Friday, May 13 for the film’s West Coast premiere. Also showing is her beautiful condensation of stargazing, Observando el Cielo (2007).

The scientific method also informs closing night feature, The Observers, a recording of the recorders who gauge the famously extreme weather atop Mount Washington, as well as Saturday, May 14’s “Observers Observed” program. The latter spotlights Get Out of the Car, Thom Andersen’s termite tour of multilingual Los Angeles. In only 33 minutes, Andersen gives us a resonant culture container, looking back at what’s been lost and imagining how it might yet change form.

When Andersen holds out a photograph of what was in front of the landscape that is, he seems to refer to the nested frames of Gary Beydler’s elegant time lapse film, Hand Held Day (1975). You can judge for yourself as that earlier film is included on the same program. Other highlights across the weekend include an evening dedicated to Bay Area maverick Robert Nelson, Ben Russell’s latest consciousness-raising Trypp, a hand-cranked projection performance by Alex MacKenzie, and short films by master collagist Lewis Klahr and some guy named Apichatpong Weerasethakul. I could go on, but you should get going. 

CROSSROADS

Thurs/12–Sun/15, $10 (festival pass, $50)

SFMOMA, 151 Third St., SF

Victoria Theater, 2961 16th St., SF

www.sfcinema.org

 

Nothing was delivered

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FILM A few wordless minutes into Meek’s Cutoff, we see a boy carving the word “LOST” into a log. You know then that Kelly Reichardt has made another movie about being stranded in America, this one a neorealist western. The year is 1845, and a three-wagon caravan is crossing the hardscrabble northwestern plains en route to the Willamette. The families have hired the rogue guide Meek (Bruce Greenwood) to show them the way, but he’s only got them low on water. The place we now call Oregon remains contested territory. There are dire murmurs that Meek may be a British agent, purposefully leading American settlers astray; Meek redirects this unease toward the prospect of race war. When the group captures a Cayuse man (Rod Rondeaux), the guide advocates hanging. Sanguine Solomon (Will Patton) maintains that they should keep him on to find water.

The distant shots of the men deliberating their best route — patent guesswork — could be from any of the three women’s perspectives, but we have little doubt the attentiveness belongs to Solomon’s wife Emily (Michelle Williams, reprising her role as Reichardt’s moral center). Millie (Zoe Kazan) is young and weak-minded (she falls prey to Meek’s fear-mongering); Glory (Shirley Henderson) is pious, pregnant, and reluctant to accept charity. Emily is skeptical of the wisdom of men.

Meek’s Cutoff is in large part about Emily’s being brought to action — first to try to earn the Indian’s trust by mending his moccasin, and second by holding Meek at gunpoint when he aims to fulfill his blood lust. Unlike the Indians in classical “progressive” westerns like Broken Arrow (1950), the Cayuse does not prove himself as the noble embodiment of liberal values. He remains wholly Other, and any perceived alignment with Emily is ultimately incommensurable. The film offers a clear moral preference for Emily’s stand, but Reichardt and screenwriter Jon Raymond’s loose chain of scenes — one imagines them as chapters with plainly descriptive titles, as in 19th century novels — neither rewards nor punishes such conviction.

After working with different cinematographers on each of her previous features, Reichardt has found a keeper in Chris Blauvelt: the slow, nearly psychedelic dissolves, distant views of riders approaching and lamp-lit conversations burnish this film with a newfound compositional integrity. Reichardt’s expressive sound design (a squeaky wheel is practically a character) and knack for staging muffled performances remain in evidence, but not everything works so well in Meek’s Cutoff. In particular, the title character’s transformation from charismatic braggart to hateful sociopath feels roughshod. By the time Emily has him at gunpoint, the scales have tipped. She’s too brave by half, and his monstrousness is similarly overstretched.

Yet one forgives this narrative convenience because Reichardt in other ways acknowledges the difficulty of mounting a western with a female protagonist. Gone are the telling gestures, close-ups, and music cues glinting through Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008); the oblique camera style shies away even from the minor pleasures of detail. These things have everything to do with the film’s torn attitude toward the genre: one in which key dualities of wilderness-civilization and individual-community are resolved by the arrival of a man who knows how and why to use a gun.

Williams submerges into the role as she did with Wendy, another marooned pilgrim, projecting tense defiance rather than magical iconography. Reichardt and Raymond cast the ideal of heroism still further adrift from any notion of destiny in their stand-still plotting of scenes. Meek’s Cutoff may be the antithesis of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — instead of a fantasy of fatherly love slicing through a postapocalyptic nowhere, here we have the struggle for the soul of a fragile community that may not survive, but is liable to be remembered.

MEEK’S CUTOFF opens Fri/6 in Bay Area theaters.

Occupational hazards

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SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL The drama of the workplace invariably hinges on the frisson of learned and instinctive behaviors. Films that get the workplace right have a special dynamism insofar as a whole social order is at stake: this is the secret connection between Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life “(consider[ing) the way in which the individual in ordinary work situations presents himself and his activity to others”) and the fine art of office comedies. There’s at least one of these in this year’s SFIFF — the nimble Japanese film Hospitalité along with a few sterner features that make unusual commitments toward reflecting a work environment.

In Hospitalité, Mikio runs a print shop backing up to a cozy domicile. Under the same roof are his young wife, Natsuki; his daughter from a previous marriage, Eriko; and his recently divorced sister, Seiko. Crucially, we still haven’t sorted this web of relations when the balance is disturbed by the arrival of a stranger. A relatively harmless variation of Joseph Cotton’s character in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Kagawa parlays a vague family connection into a job, a room, and more.

Early in the film, Mikio runs into his ex-wife at the market and invites her to take Eriko for a few hours. It’s a mildly puzzling scene since writer-director Koji Fukada has let us believe (along with Kagawa) that Eriko’s mother was dead — but not nearly so baffling as the nonsensical vision of a blonde bombshell in her bathrobe waiting for Mikio and Natsuki at home (Kagawa’s Brazilian wife, it turns out). This is how Hospitalité goes, one uncertainty following another. The difficulty distinguishing what’s threatening from what’s just odd is part of the film’s charm, and Fukada deftly manages the constrained frames of his shop around the corner to unravel his characters’ mannered reactions. The mechanical operation of the printers provides nice comic counterpoint in several scenes; it also seems an almost poignant choice of occupation for a story concerning the pitfalls of self-sufficiency.

The sunken figures of Christoph Hochhäusler’s The City Below also live at work, but there’s nothing domestic about this world of glass and sheer verticality. Actual Frankfurt is made subsidiary to its enveloping high-finance architecture. The visual field is worryingly destabilized in these lofts and offices; Hochhäusler has pulled off the neat trick of realizing expressionistic motifs as translucence rather than shadow. The City Below’s story doesn’t truck with psychological realism, so it’s probably useful knowing that it was inspired by the David and Bathsheba myth. This being late capitalism, our David (the aging venture capitalist Roland) doesn’t need to send the husband to war to have his Bathsheba (maddeningly opaque Svenja). He contrives a transfer to fill a post in Jakarta, where a former colleague was recently kidnapped and murdered.

Hochhäusler gestures toward familiar motifs of betrayal, seduction, and deception, but with the floridness drained away. You can see the difference from something like Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) in the film’s gliding camera movements, a flourish typically deployed as shorthand for power’s intoxicating effects. Hochhäusler works from unnerving angles and chops up the glide so as to retrace the same ground like a record needle stuck in a groove — one of the film’s many striking alienation effects. The title takes on a radical redefinition with a sudden exit reminiscent of the one that swallowed up Manoel de Oliveira’s A Talking Picture (2003). But even before then, the meltdowns to come have already blocked the easy flow of time and space.

The Last Buffalo Hunt might seem a leap from here, but listen to Terry Albrecht explaining how burned out he feels from decades of guiding tourist-hunters for a shot at the once-plentiful beasts: “You know how it is … another day at the office.” A documentary pitched uneasily between third-person essay and first-person observation, The Last Buffalo Hunt is the result of more than five years of tracking Albrecht and his patrons in Utah’s choked Henry Mountains. Lee Anne Schmitt and coproducer Lee Lynch do not make this material easy to absorb either at the level of sensory impressions or intellectual understanding. It’s a familiar story by now — that as the West was won, it was made consumable as iconography and fantasy — but rarely has the laboriousness of this task been brought into such close focus as it is here.

In her previous film, California Company Town (2008), Schmitt created a ruminative space by supplementing her landscape surveys with essayistic illuminations of what had been wrought in this or that place. The soundtrack in The Last Buffalo Hunt works similarly, situating the annual hunts in shards of history and variations on the Western theme (ranging from popular song to Frederick Jackson Turner’s discourses). But Schmitt’s foray into this landscape is more precarious for the simple reason that she and Lynch are dependent on Terry and his men. He’s a different kind of guide to them than he is to the hunters, to be sure, but similarly indispensable.

When I saw the film at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, one viewer commented on the Western memorabilia glimpsed in Terry’s home — that it seemed typical of how American individualism devolves into a refusal to see beyond one’s myths. I suppose he’s right, but there’s something sad about how little the myth has done for Terry. At the end of his career, his livelihood is far from triumphal. Early in The Last Buffalo Hunt we see a century-old photograph of a man standing in front of a mountain of skins, and the present-tense hunts seem entirely predicated on such photo-ops. The narration suggests a common link in entitlement, though this hardly feels like a solution. If the protracted death of a single bison is finally as irreducible as Terry’s hard day at the office, they both end up in the animatronic display of history, the Indians long forgotten. 

THE 54TH ANNUAL SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL runs April 21–-May 5. Venues are the Sundance Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; Castro, 429 Castro, SF; New People, 1746 Post, SF; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third, SF; and Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, SF. For tickets (most shows $13) and complete schedule visit www.sffs.org.

 

The world Maclaine made

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FILM For a biographical abstract of Christopher Maclaine, try the famous first lines of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. For greater precision, observe poet David Meltzer’s letter to film historian P. Adams Sitney (reproduced in Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000): “Poet, filmmaker, stand-up comic, bagpiper, chaser of mysteries.” Meltzer’s letter continues, “In the mid-’60s sacrificed his nervous system to methedrine.” Stan Brakhage wrote of Maclaine, “He courted madness and he finally got it.” Before he did, he completed four films, the first of which — his preemptive magnum opus, The End (1953) — flattened a very young Brakhage at its infamous Art in Cinema premiere. Sixty-seven years after the museum crowd balked at Maclaine’s celluloid testament, the film is back at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

We still haven’t found the categories that will contain Maclaine’s non-sync film of revelations: a found-footage narrative composed of original materials; a lettrist pulp fiction; a proto-punk murder ballad radioed to the void; a hipster “duck and cover” drill with time enough for Beethoven and Bartok. Like Sunset Blvd. (1950), The End is narrated from beyond the grave — only this voice (Maclaine’s) speaks behind nuclear holocaust rather than mere murder. First thing, we see the mushroom cloud (annihilation was in the air: America had recently tested the hydrogen bomb in the Pacific). Maclaine insinuates us over extended black leader: “Soon we shall meet the cast. Observe them well. See if they are not yourselves. And if you find none of them to be so, then insert yourself into this revue.” The cast, he explains, were his friends: “They all have stories. We shall be able to learn a little about each of them before our time runs out.”

The following 30 minutes snakes through six sections and four clearly identified characters. Though the cast is unwitting of the coming apocalypse, they are not innocent of its destructive energies. Before the blast, two die by their own hand and one on the wrong side of a stranger’s gun. The fourth, an innocent poet in a cruel world (played by Wilder Bentley II, who will be in attendance for the Thurs., March 31 screening), seeks redemption as a leper. They are all on the run from America — each “couldn’t face the 20th century.” Maclaine’s montage scatters images from the different mini-narratives and pulls together a mash of insert motifs that function as another layer of poetic commentary — a lyrical compliment to the voice-over’s epic address.

The cubist construction of these episodes is such that you would know a bomb had gone off even if you hadn’t seen the mushroom cloud. Scholar J.J. Murphy helpfully suggests Charlie Parker’s phrasing as a possible influence on Maclaine’s frenzied cutting, though the North Beach Scotsman also seems to anticipate the rhythms of Blank Generations to come. There are many jolting connections throughout The End, some delightfully unforeseen (the Powell Street trolley turnaround next to a gun barrel’s spin) and others simply damning (dramatization of a suicide’s collapse intertwined with documentary footage of a homeless man flat on the street). The montage reaches its zenith in the film’s closing moments, when a tumble of images registering sexual release and last-gasp poignancy are set to “Ode to Joy” as final shards of the known world.

It’s hard to fathom The End‘s originality now that so many of its techniques have become familiar avant-garde strategies. At the time, most experimental films strove for self-conscious lyricism, drawing on abstraction, silence, and psychosexual expressionism to articulate a space outside society. Maclaine dramatizes the break, never more explicitly than when he directly addresses the audience (“The person next to you is a leper!”) With its strong conviction that death itself has changed, The End is often discussed as an expression of atomic-age nihilism. Even more radical is the way Maclaine channels what was then still a new mode of address: the live television feed, which Sen. Joe McCarthy was just then exploiting in his Voice of America hearings. A decade before Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, Maclaine intuits the connections between medium and message — the mushroom cloud and television being two sides of the same terrifying totality.

Maclaine made only three short films after The End, all of which will be shown Thursday night: The Man Who Invented Gold (1957), Beat (1958), and Scotch Hop (1959). None of these match The End‘s x-ray vision, although The Man Who Invented Gold and Beat both unfold the same vivid imagination of the San Francisco terrain. Scotch Hop is something different and, on first viewing, my favorite of the later works: the Scotsman’s equivalent of Olympia (1938), with low angles and slow motion placing bagpipers, log-throwers, and fiercely proud dancers on a heroic plain. Brakhage claims it a masterpiece in his poignant remembrance of Maclaine in his book Film at Wit’s End, but there’s little doubt that The End had the more profound impact on his own filmmaking — specifically in the way it demonstrated the liberating effects of a film grammar built of “mistakes.”

Meanwhile, the search for Maclaine continues in a serial analysis of The End on SFMOMA’s Open Space blog by filmmaker and projectionist Brecht Andersch in collaboration with Hell on Frisco Bay blogger Brian Darr. As of this writing, “The The End Tour” has reached its 15th installment. All together, it constitutes a supremely dedicated work of media archaeology, and one of the liveliest works of film criticism I’ve encountered in some time. Andersch and Darr’s spirited dissection of the film’s psychogeographic dynamics has illuminated the film’s subliminal operations as well as its creative mapping of the local landscape. Most remarkable is their discovery that a prominent patch of graffiti (“PRAY”) that appears in the film is still tattooed on a China Beach wall — as if Maclaine’s imagined nuclear blast fixed it there for all time.

IN SEARCH OF CHRISTOPHER MACLAINE: MAN, ARTIST, LEGEND

Thurs/31, 7 p.m., $10

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF

(415) 357-4000

www.sfmoma.org