Saturday, November 16, 2013

Bastards on Parade in Claire Denis' Paris

Bastards / Les Salauds
(Claire Denis, France, 2013, 83 mins.)

With Bastards, Claire Denis returns to the shadowy, dread-filled filmmaking that characterized 2006's The Intruder (L'Intrus), which was also shot by the amazing Agnès Godard

She starts by showing the central characters going about their business, but without introducing them or explaining their connections to one another. Denis continues to withhold information throughout the film, doling out bits and pieces here and there, but always keeping a few crucial details to herself.  

After his brother-in-law, Jacques (Laurent Grevill), kills himself, Marco Silvestri (Vincent Lindon, who appeared in Denis's Friday Night and shares a countenance with Yves Montand), a coiled tiger of a tanker captain, returns from the Middle East to Paris to help out his sister, Sandra (Julie Baitaille). Sandra holds business magnate Edouard Laporte (aquamarine-eyed Michael Subor, The Intruder) responsible for her husband's death. 

Now the family business, which revolves around ladies shoes, is in shambles, and Sandra will have to file bankruptcy in order to avoid her debt to Laporte.
Marco proceeds to move into the same noirish, spiral-staircased building where Laporte's mistress, Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), and their young son, Joseph, reside. A subtle sexual attraction develops between the two; the divorced man may be older than the single woman, but he's considerably younger than Edouard, so it's not too surprising when they embark on an affair, but it isn't clear whether or not Marco is just using her to get to Edouard.  

While the adults are dealing with their issues, Marco's teenage niece, Justine (Lola Créton, from Catherine Breillat's Bluebeard), ends up in a psychiatric facility due to her propensity to wander the rain-slick streets at night in the nude while wearing high heels, an arresting image, but not an especially persuasive one. 

The head psychiatrist (Denis mainstay Alex Descas) tells Marco that Justine has a history of sexual abuse, but she remains such a cipher that the disclosure fails to carry the necessary weight. Between Créton and Mastroianni, there's also a fair amount of nudity in the film, though the men remain fully clothed, possibly because they exert all of the control, but it still feels exploitative--even if exploitation lies at the heart of the story. 

Further, the narrative strands conjoin in a manner I found more dramatically than emotionally compelling (I preferred the open-endedness of The Intruder). This aptly-titled film is a chilly piece of work, and that includes the Tindersticks' score, which calls on more electronic textures than usual. Chilly isn't a bad thing when it comes to Denis, but after the warmth of 35 Shots of Rum, Bastards isn't the triumph I was expecting.  

Bastards plays the Northwest Film Forum (1515 12th Ave.) through Nov. 21 at 7:15 and 9:15pm on weekdays, plus 5:15pm on Sat. and Sun. (click link for more info and to buy tickets).  

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Something for Everyone

San Francisco Silent Film Festival
July 18-21, 2013
Castro Theatre

What drives an audience to the movies? Some viewers go to see beloved stars, some for insightful directors, and some for a good laugh. Has that changed since the advent of sound? Judging from this year’s lineup at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, running July 18-21 at the Castro Theatre, not much has changed at all.

Film stars started to draw progressively larger salaries during the silent period for a reason. Then, as now, a good actor provides the entry point for viewers into a fictional landscape that takes them out of their world and into adventure, and the 2013 festival offers one of the legends. Douglas Fairbanks grew to be a major box office draw throughout the world during the ‘20s with a series of swashbuckling period films, bringing to cinematic life the adventures of iconic figures like Robin Hood and D'Artagnan. The 2013 San Francisco Silent Film Festival affords attendees a chance to see one of his early films, Allen Dwan’s The Half-Breed (1916), recently restored through the efforts of the SFSFF and the Cinémathèque française.

Douglas Fairbanks half naked in The Half-Breed

Fairbanks plays Lo Dorman, the son of a Native American woman and an unknown white father. He lives among the redwoods on the outskirts of a small town, despised by the townfolks because of his ethnicity.  He finds fellowship when he encounters Teresa (Alma Rubens), a young woman hiding out from the law in the forest. The world they share inevitably collides with the mores of the town. Günter Buchwald will accompany the screening on the Mighty Wurlitzer. Buchwald has accompanied silent films for over 25 years, playing at silent film festivals around the world.

Certain directors, like Dwan with Half-Breed, use an impressive landscape and melodrama to depict human emotion. But some viewers choose their films based on the sensitivities of an insightful director who reveals the human heart of their characters through cinematic storytelling on a smaller scale. Yasujiro Ozu was a master of depicting ordinary people struggling with big but familiar circumstances, deftly blending comedy and drama for poignant results.

As with all of  Ozu's films, family is paramount in Tokyo Chorus.

In Ozu’s Tokyo Chorus (1931), a young insurance man stands up for an older co-worker who is neglected on bonus day, resulting in a humorously escalating tit-for-tat with his boss, at the end of which he loses his job. The film depicts his struggle to support his family during the economically tough times in contemporary Japan. Ozu delicately portrays the emotional hardships involved, not just the economic ones, as the family has to cope with the salesman’s loss of status as well as income. Günter Buchwald will again provide the musical accompaniment.

Sometimes what an audience desires most from a film is escapism provided by laughter, to have a talented comedian lead them into a madcap adventure from the security of their theater seat. In Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (1923), the small town everyman struggles to better himself financially by moving to the big city. Lloyd’s up-and-comer seizes opportunities as they arise with increasing risk of harm, mainly of the bodily variety. He is Ozu’s everyman thrust into a Fairbanks adventure.

Harold Lloyd running out of time in Safety Last

Ultimately, the desire to get ahead leads to one of the most famous and breathtaking stunts in movie history: Lloyd’s climbing the façade of a 12-story building and hanging precariously off a clock face, which starts slowly detaching itself from the building. Lloyd climbed the building himself; no stunt man and no cinematic tricks were involved. The Mont Alto Orchestra, a quintet dedicated to authentic silent picture accompaniment, will accompany the film.

There are, of course, differences between modern and silent era audiences. Contemporary viewers can watch movies in their homes, but much is lost in doing so. Watching films with an audience, laughing together, crying together, and being amazed together heightens each viewer’s individual experience. To see a film on the big screen of a movie palace immerses the viewer in a way that watching a film on a TV screen, even a 65-inch high definition model, can’t. Of course, now there are synchronized soundtracks to film, providing voices and a score. However, the silent films weren’t watched in silence; live music accompanied the films, adding enormously to the story unfolding onscreen. The SFSFF excels in bringing the best silent film accompanists from around the world to play for the films. The festival provides a chance to see silent films as intended: with an audience, in a movie palace, and accompanied by live music.

Visit the SFSFFwebsite for the full schedule, program notes and ticket information.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

An Englishman in Italy: Berberian Sound Studio

2012, UK, 
92 mins.)

In Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, Donald Sutherland played an American in Italy, slowly going mad in the wake of a terrible loss. His wife (Julie Christie) was with him in Venice, but he was the one seeing the strange visions. Compared to Toby Jones, the lead in Peter Strickland's second film, Berberian Sound Studio, he was tall and stolid, whereas the diminutive Jones looks frail and vulnerable right from the start. 

Jones plays Gilderoy, a British sound mixer who travels to Italy in 1976 to work on The Equestrian Vortex, a giallo feature. Instead of opening with standard-issue credits, Strickland heads straight to the blood-red credits for the film-within-a-film as Broadcast's score fills the speakers (it features some of the last recorded vocals of the late Trish Keenan). Gilderoy's introduction to Santini's film doubles as our introduction to Strickland's.   

A specialist in 
television doc-
Gilderoy i
both surpris-
ed and unset-
tled to find 
that Eques-
trian has noth-
ing to do with 
horses. And 
that filmmaker 
Giancarlo San-
tini (Antonio Mancino) is rarely around. Instead, he works with impatient producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) on the sound design, which encompasses dialogue, sound effects, foley work, wordless singing, and music. 

Strickland, who shot the entire film in England, eschews exterior shots in favor of claustrophobic interiors filled with vintage recording equipment, like bulky reel-to-reel machines (whirring tape serves as a recurring motif).

Though the Italian crew speaks English, Gilderoy receives conflicting messages about the way things work at the studio. Money appears to be in short supply, and he comes to fear that he won't get anything at all. 

If his male colleagues can be boorish, he finds an ally in Sylvia (Fatma Mohamed), an actress who admires his work, but the misogyny of the project, which involves the torture of witches, starts to grind him down.  

As in the gial-
los of yore,  
those of Dario 
Argento, the 
scheme fav-
ors shadows, 
and everything is brown and gold with splashes of red--radishes, tomato sauce, and a flashing "Silenzio" sign--but Strickland avoids any scenes from the fictional film. The sound is the thing, and whenever the foley artists fail to show up, Gilderoy steps in to do their job.

Once he transitions from observer to participant, though, his sanity takes a trip, and Strickland blurs the lines between the studio, his dreams, his mother's letters, and the world of the film. They all join together as one. 

In its rigorous attention to sound, Berberian Sound Studio brings to 
mind Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation and Brian De Palma's  
Blow Out, cinematic predecessors that revolved around audio experts 
obsessing over the things they hear--or think they hear--on their reels. 

Is it significant that directors of Italian descent made those motion pictures? Probably not, but it's an intriguing coincidence, especially since Italy's Michelangelo Antonioni made Blow-Up, the British film that inspired De Palma's effort.

By comparison, Strickland has 
made a smaller movie, and the 
final sequence is so subtle that 
I didn't realize it was over until 
the closing credits began to un-
spool, and that's exactly how it 
should be. Just as Gilderoy los-
es the ability to distinguish fic-
tion from reality, I found myself 
letting go of my preconceptions about conventional thrillers to make way for a trickier proposition like Berberian Sound Studio

Berberian Sound Studio plays the Northwest Film Forum through July 11. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Before Bernard Herman: Rediscovering Hitchcock’s Silent Period

The Hitchcock 9
Castro Theatre
June 14-16, 2013

SIFF Cinema Uptown 
July 26-28, 2013 

Ivor Novello as  The Lodger (1926) 

San Franciscans will have a rare opportunity to see the British Film Institute's loving restoration of Alfred Hitchcock's earliest surviving films. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival will present The Hitchcock 9 June 14 through 16 at the historic Castro Theatre. The series illustrates the development of the master of suspense’s directorial style from his first film, The Pleasure Garden (1925), to the one he considered "the first true Hitchcock picture,"The Lodger (1926). While all these films have been on DVD or VHS previously (often transferred from public domain prints and with less than stellar soundtracks), this event provides a chance to see the films restored to their original splendor, in a single screen cinema, and accompanied by specially commissioned scores performed by accomplished silent film accompanist.

Director Alfred Hitchcock and star Anny Ondra have a bit of fun on the set of Blackmail.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, a quintet dedicated to authentic silent picture accompaniment, will play for the opening night film, the silent version of the suspenseful psychological thriller Blackmail (1929). Originally produced as a silent film, British International pictures gave Hitchcock the go ahead to film a few sound sequences for Blackmail (a common practice during the film industry’s transition to sound). Hitchcock chose instead to create a second almost entirely sound version. Both were released, accommodating cinemas that had installed sound and those who hadn’t, resulting in a commercial success. Mont Alto will also accompany the boxing melodrama The Ring (1927) on Saturday and the closing night screening of The Lodger on Sunday.

As usual, the course of true love does not run smooth in The Farmer's Wife (1928)

Silent film pianist and composer Judy Rosenberg will perform her own scores for two films: The bubbly romantic comedy Champagne (1928) and the film adaptation of Noel Coward’s dramatic stage hit Easy Virtue (1927). The films play Saturday and Sunday afternoon respectively. The indefatigable composer, musician and BFI house accompanist Stephen Horne will play for the remaining four films, three of which he composed the scores for: Downhill (1927) based on the play co-written by the film’s star, Ivor Novello; the utterly charming romantic comedy The Farmer's Wife (1928); and the dark romantic triangle The Manxman (1929). Harpist Diana Rowan will join Horne for Manxman.  Horne will also accompany the backstage tale of two chorus girls (one bad, one good), The Pleasure Garden (1926).

A bad girl or a good one? The Pleasure Garden (1926)

Full program and ticket information for the SFSFF presentation of The Hitchcock 9 is available on the SFSFF's website. The series will also play in Seattle at the SIFF Cinema Uptown July 26-28. In addition, the series is set to screen in BrooklynLos Angeles Washington, D.C., Berkeley, Chicago, Houston, and Boston.  Each venue will feature differing line-ups of accompanists. The touring festival is a joint venture of the BFI, Park Circus/ITV Studios, and Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal. 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Blurry Pictures of Dynamic Directors, Pt. 3

All taken by me at the 39th Seattle International Film Festival.

Click here for part two (from SIFF '12).

B. Ruby Rich moderates the New Queer Cinema panel on 5/18. 


I've only attended one panel at this year's SIFF. Fortunately, it was quite good. At this event, author B. Ruby Rich and her panelists talked about the New Queer Cinema of the past (Derek Jarman, Sadie Benning, etc.), its legacy, and its influence on their work. Rich also shared footage of a similar panel from the Sundance Film Festival in the early-1990s.   

Yen Tan (Pit Stop), Stacie Passon (Concussion), and Alan Brown (Five Dances).

Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to see any of the panelist's films, though I heard particularly positive things about Five Dances. In discussing their approaches to filmmaking, Alan Brown said that he enjoys working with theater actors more than those from movies and TV, while Tan and Passon tend to work with more recognizable performers, like Amy Seimetz (Pit Stop) and Robin Weigert (Concussion).

Stan Shields, Tess Martin (They Look Right Through You), and Amy Finkel (Furever). 

Furever was one of my favorite documentaries at SIFF '13. Tess Martin's short, which preceded it, proved a perfect fit. I found both quite moving.   

Greta and her freeze-dried pom, Rudy, from Furever

Endnote: For more on Furever, click here for my Line Out post.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Mary Pickford: Beyond the Girl with the Golden Curls

My Best Girl (1927)
Musical Accompaniment by Donald Sosin on grand piano
Saturday, February 16, 2013, 7:00 PM
San Francisco Silent Film Festival Winter Event
Castro Theatre, San Francisco   

Poster for My Best Girl  (1927)

The utterly charming romantic comedy, My Best Girl (1927) occupies a significant place in the life and work of actress Mary Pickford. While most of her previous films allow her some moments of comedy and romance, this film brings to the forefront Pickford’s remarkable comedic abilities as well as an adult romantic sexuality only glimpsed in those prior roles. There is also a strong element of life imitating art, as Pickford and her costar Buddy Rogers ended up marrying years later, after first meeting during the production and experiencing a mutual, but unexplored, attraction.

The film’s story concerns Maggie Jones (Pickford) a scrappy five-and-ten-cent store clerk who’s asked to train new hire Joe Grant (Rogers). Romantic sparks fly; however, there are complications: unbeknownst to Maggie, Joe’s real last name is Merrill, and his family owns the chain of stores that Maggie works for. Joe is working incognito to prove himself to his father before taking over the business. Maggie, on the other hand, is strictly working-class, doing her best to take care of her put upon postman father, her self-dramatizing mother—whose hobbies include attending the funerals of strangers and sniffing smelling salts, and a temperamental jazz-baby sister with a shady boyfriend who drags her into trouble. In addition to their class and family differences, Joe’s mother already has a society girl picked out for Joe to marry. The young lovers’ star-crossed romance and the film itself take a series of delightful twists and turns on the path to resolution.

Lunch for two. Buddy Rogers and Mary Pickford in My Bet Girl (1927).

Pickford and Rogers display remarkable sexual chemistry in their scenes together. Pickford has her longest, and most intense, onscreen love scene with him. While on break, Maggie and Joe lunch in a packing crate that they’ve turned into a little café for two. After inadvertently putting his arm around Maggie while trying to free his sleeve from a nail, Joe kisses Maggie for the first time. While the scene plays sweet and funny on the surface, there’s also an intense eroticism underlying their interplay, undoubtedly fueled by Rogers’ off-screen crush on his co-star.

Rogers remained smitten with his Pickford long after shooting ended, telling friends that he couldn’t marry because the girl he wanted was already married. He pursued Pickford diligently for four years after her 1933 divorce from Douglas Fairbanks.  For her part, Pickford states in her autobiography Sunshine and Shadow (1955) that when she met Rogers, “I had no more idea that he would one day become my husband than I had of marrying the King of Siam.” She does admit, however, that she realized at their first meeting that Rogers resembled the husband she had pictured for herself at age fourteen. 

Buddy finally gets his girl.

In addition to showing a more modern, nuanced, and sexual side of Pickford, the film allowed her to play a character who is a modern (albeit good) girl, a break from the more traditional heroines she’d been portraying.  And significantly the character is a fully adult woman, after Pickford solidified her career by playing a remarkably large number of archetypal child roles. Maggie was the type usually played at the time by younger actresses like Coleen Moore or Clara Bow. Although Pickford lacks their modern-for-1920s bobbed hair, she captures perfectly the spirit of the times. The public responded warmly to her departure from her established image, and the film was a box office success.  Director Sam Taylor, who previously collaborated on a number of films with Harold Lloyd, aided Pickford’s efforts towards updating her image and instills both deft comic touches and a dreamy romanticism to the picture. He would go on to direct her remaining films.

Notably, Girl was the last time that Pickford’s trademark long curls were seen on film, before she cut them off in the hopes of modernizing her image. This was a significant step, as the movie going public adored her hair to the extent that, two decades later in her autobiography, Pickford still questioned whether she had had “the right” to cut it.  In her next project, and first talkie, Coquette (1929) Pickford further built upon her new image: She sported her newly bobbed hair as well as a Southern accent to play a flirtatious belle who commits a romantic transgression with tragic results. That film earned over a million dollars and an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Pickford.

Mary Pickford before and after bobbing her hair.

On the surface, it seemed she had smoothly made the transition to sound and a modern image with Coquette and was set to successfully continue her acting career. However, she only made three more films, and then essentially became a recluse. Her withdrawal from public life was prompted not only by a series of box office failures, but also a series of personal tragedies which worsened her increasing dependence on alcohol. Pickford had never really recovered from her mother’s death in 1928. In addition, her siblings died prematurely: Brother Jack in 1933 at age 37 followed by their sister Lottie in 1936 at age 41. Compounding her grief over the family deaths was the trauma of her divorce from Douglas Fairbanks in 1933.  Neither Pickford nor Fairbanks every truly recovered from it, despite marrying others. Losing Fairbanks undoubtedly further Mary’s alcohol problem, doubly so since he disapproved of drinking, which probably helped her limit her drinking during their marriage, or at least hide it better. 

The Pickfords as children: Mary, Lottie and Jack.

While it is a shame that Pickford’s career ended prematurely, she left behind a remarkable body of work which, due to her naturalistic acting style and considerable charisma, remains enjoyable to modern audiences. In addition to the pleasure of seeing a well-made romantic comedy, My Best Girl also gives the audience the opportunity to see Pickford’s remarkable acting ability in a different light.

For screening and ticket information for My Best Girl as well as the full line-up for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival Winter Event, please visit the SFSFF’s website.