introducing visions of a city

Fandor‘s selection of Larry Jordan’s luminous Visions of a City (USA, 1978) as one of its “Featured Films of the Week” reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to start on this blog for a while now: a semi-regular series of posts showcasing cinematic San Francisco.  And what better name could there possibly be for such a series than the title of Jordan’s own film?

As the emphasis is on visual representation, I don’t usually intend these posts to contain reviews, but a few contextual notes seemed called for in this particular case.  Visions of a City is comprised of footage shot in 1957 but not edited until 1978, for in Jordan’s own words: “I found that it was one of those rare films that I have always deplored the scarcity of: documents of how it really looked in a certain place in a certain year.”  It is also serves as what he calls a “filmic portait” of the poet Michael McClure as a young man.

By focusing his camera on reflective surfaces such as windows, mirrors, and even bottles and car bumpers, Jordan captures glimpses of a vibrant cityscape that become layered in complex and strikingly beautiful ways that resemble dissolves.  San Francisco, then, is at once represented as simultaneously a tangible location and a fleeting, dreamlike mirage.  And the screen captures presented below hardly do justice to the film, as it is often in the intricate camera movement that the true wonder of Jordan’s images are revealed, so check out the entire film–it’s a painless and rewarding 6 minutes–either on Fandor or Ubu Web.

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endless cyclicality

What a sly, slippery film O Estranho Caso de Angélica (The Strange Case of Angelica) (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, 2011) is–it really should be a minor, forgettable trifle, dangling as it is on the most delicately trivial of plots.  Which in itself is rather odd, because as the oldest working filmmaker–“nearly as old as cinema itself,” as Manohla Dargis nicely puts it–de Oliveira has certainly reached a point where he has every reason to make films of sweeping statements and impressive ruminations, with a gravity and sense of significance befitting his most distinguished age of 102.

But he seems adamant in his resistance to playing “grand old man of the cinema,” and rather than weighing down his films with plot and narrative instead opts for a silly little scrap of a story–a young man who becomes bewitched by a beautiful dead woman he was asked to photograph–and then patiently observes as this situation plays itself out within the hermetic little Portuguese farm community in which it takes place.

And it is from this deliberate, confident patience which suddenly imbues the film with an unexpected gravity… I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but there was a moment during the film when it suddenly hit me that this was very clearly the work of an individual who has literally experienced an entire century, and who is aware of dimensions of time and history others are not privy to.  Subtly and effortlessly de Oliveria conveys both the ebb and flow of entire eras (traditions quickly passing into oblivion) and the smaller cycles within them that compose the every day (noisy trucks passing under a window each morning at dawn), of the way different generations interact with each other and the ways that they talk past each other, and finally, of the way that history is inscribed onto the surface of spaces and objects and how they remain while human lives cycle around them endlessly.

And, on a more personal note, there’s also a layer of poignance and resonance for me when watching de Oliveira’s films of sensing my own family history surfacing on the screen: my family roots also lie in rural Porto of the north, and at unexpected moments–in the walk of an old woman, the swing of a grape hoe, or, most particularly, the traditional songs–I can almost sense, for just a split-second, my family mythologies come to life before my eyes.  And for me, that is much more magical than the appearances of the ghostly specter of the title.

A masterful film by a true master of cinema, though blink for a moment, and you might not recognize it.

week in review, 02/20 – 02/26/2012

All first viewings this week.

Theatrical Viewing

Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, USA, 1957) – Castro Theatre, 35mm

Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, USA, 1951) – Castro Theatre, 35mm

Mystery of the Eiffel Tower (Le mystère de la tour Eiffel) (Julien Duvivier, France, 1927) – PFA, 35mm

Read

Reading a number of books, but didn’t complete any this week. However, spent a great deal of time with Vivian Sobchack’s notable and influential long essay “Lounge Time: Post-War Crises and the Chronotope of Film Noir”

Looking Forward to This Next Week

An Evening with Claude Lanzmann – JCCSF, 02/28

A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven) (Powell & Pressburger, UK, 1946) / The Music Lovers (Ken Russell, UK, 1970) – Castro Theatre, 02/29

Funny Face (Stanley Donen, USA, 1957) / Love Streams (John Cassavetes, USA, 1980) – Castro Theatre, 03/01

Scarface (Howard Hawks, USA, 1932) / Three On a Match (Mervyn LeRoy, USA, 1932) – Roxie Theater, 03/02

Freaks (Tod Browning, USA, 1932) / Island of Lost Souls (Erle C. Kenton, USA, 1932)

Three Lives and Only One Death (Raúl Ruiz, France /Portugal, 1996) – PFA, 03/02

 

hoofin’ it to the top

I’ve always heard such good things about 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon, USA, 1933), so I’m kind of scratching my head at the extremely lackluster film I actually watched.  This kind of backstage story that Hollywood seemed to churn out in countless variations during the 1930’s are always a lot of fun, typically an opportunity to showcase a lot of witty/bitchy banter, shrewd satire, colorful personalities, to say nothing of impressive sets, costumes and choreography.

Most of these are rags-to-riches tales with wide-eyed ingenues discovering their fated fame as superstars, and I suppose in this critical way, 42nd Street is different than most.  Because the star that is born in this situation is Ruby Dee, whose leaden feet rather inexplicably seems to inspire a sense of awe in everyone she interacts with (or, more often, inadvertently stumbles upon).  So much so that they all her peers help her along to her destined spot as the last-minute replacement for the show’s leading role, even at the sacrifice of their own careers.  Eh…?  It’s almost as if the film is pulling a prank on the audience―how else could this clearly mediocre dancer/actress make such a startlingly easy ascendancy to the top?  But the audience never gets a wink to let us in on a joke, if it is, in fact, a joke.

That said, it might be a bit harsh to pin most of the film’s shortcomings on Keeler, especially since there’s a surprising lack of zip in the rest of the proceedings in general, even in the Busby Berkeley extravaganza that concludes the film, which seems a bit… heavy.  For my money, one merely need look as far as the vastly superior Joan Crawford vehicle Dancing Lady from the same year–it might lack the participation of Berkeley, but it’s a the chance to watch a real star claw her preordained way to the top!

dodging definitions

Though overall I didn’t respond to By Hook or By Crook (Harry Dodge and Silas Howard, USA, 2001) nearly as much as I was hoping or expecting to, it’s indeed an important film in its own way and just about the only film I can think of that allows the main characters not only occupy an ambiguous space in regards to both gender and sexuality, but also has a narrative that shows no interest in forcing or demanding distinctions be made.  Which on paper it may not sound particularly notable, but experiencing it through the film often feels nothing less than radical.  One need only think of the other films dealing with transgender characters, such as Boys Don’t Cry, whose “big reveal” to substantiate biological gender for other characters and the audience serve as climactic moments.  By Hook or By Crook interests lie decidedly elsewhere, and the film is all the more interesting because of it.

Also adding to the charm, for me, was its local production which showcases sides of the city that don’t often get glimpsed on film, particularly the Mission District (depicted as some kind of genderqueer oasis) and the Lex (that is, the Lexington Club, the city’s most famous lesbian bar) with nary a glimpse of the stereotypical SF–the Golden Gate Bridge, a streetcar, the Seven Sisters–to be found.  But not only is it an alternative view of the city but practically an alternative universe in and of itself—one of the most insightful observations of the film I’ve come across is how within the film it’s the non-queer world that is depicted as skewed and bizarrely unnatural.

The film is clearly a labor of love for Silas Howard and Harry Dodge, the non-filmmakers who wrote, directed, raised the funds for and then starred in the film, and represents a kind of post-New Queer Cinema return to no-budget independent filmmaking, and it’s ramshackle, “do it yourself” quality is certainly a massive part of its power and its charm.

week in review, 02/13 – 02/20/2012

I’ve been meaning to start this up again, so here we go.  All first viewings, unless otherwise noted.

Theatrical Viewing

Ming Green (short) (Gregory Markopoulos, USA, 1966) – PFA, 16mm

The Illiac Passion (Gregory Markopoulos, USA, 1967) – PFA, 16mm

Une femme douce (A Gentle Woman) (Robert Bresson, France, 1969) – PFA, 35mm; 2nd viewing

Four Nights of a Dreamer (Robert Bresson, France, 1971) – PFA, 35mm

High – (Larry Kent, Canada, 1967) – Indie Fest at the Roxie, 16mm

Home Viewing
Downton Abbey, Season One – Netflix

Finished Reading
Benito Cerano by Herman Melville (1885)
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939) – 4th reread
City Crimes; or, Life in New York and Boston by George Thompson (1849)

Looking Forward to This Next Week
Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks, USA, 1939) – PFA, 35mm, 02/21
Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, USA, 1957) / Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, USA, 1951) – Castro Theatre, 35mm, 02/22

worrisome, weird feelings

Dracula’s Daughter (Lambert Hillyer, USA, 1936) is usually cited as an early—albeit heavily coded—depiction of lesbianism in American cinema, and the striking, rather handsome Gloria Holden’s vampiric seduction of the tremulous Nan Grey certainly has a certain sexual charge and narrative prominence that is matched by nothing else in the film.  As if to underline the point, the tagline of the film, emblazoned across all original posters for the film, provocatively screams “she gives you that WEIRD FEELING” while others promise that “she’s more sensational than her unforgettable father!”

And in a sense, I agree.  As I’ve written elsewhere, one of my main critiques of the Dracula mythology, first in Bram Stoker’s infamous novel and then the film variations that followed, is that it becomes a point of closure for the rich homoerotic undertones that had imbued earlier vampire lore (I’m thinking in particular of the lesbianism of Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla and, even earlier, Polidori’s undoubtedly queer The Vampyre).  What Stoker instituted instead, as I wrote, “establish[ed] precedents that are comparatively dull in their clean, unambiguous delineations (undead=evil, strict heterosexuality, etc).”  As such, Dracula’s Daughter serves a step away from Stoker and back towards the sexually ambiguous possibilities hinted out by le Fanu and others.  At least in theory.

But whether or not one cares to interpret it as a cinematic site of coded lesbian desire, it’s unfortunately just about the only thing to recommend the film—the rest of the narrative is rather tired and lackluster (and clocking in at barely 70 minutes, still manages to be feel both padded and extremely rushed).  Opportunities for moments of genuine eeriness and fright appear frequently but are generally squandered.  Frankly, the film doesn’t deserve Holden, whose patrician presence allows her to kind of cut through the rest of the film like some kind of knife, imperiously slicing through the bumbling stock characters and rote plot points surrounding her.

[These and many more striking poster images for this film can be found here.]

cries of the heart

A great—and previously unknown to me—achievement of the silent era is Jean Epstein’s La Coeur fidèle (France, 1923), also known as Faithful Heart.  Having recently received a simply awe-inspiring Blu-ray release from Masters of Cinema, the impeccable technical quality of this release spectacularly showcases one of the most visually ravishing and stunningly beautiful silent films I’ve ever encountered.

And for my money, Gina Manès legitimately gives Falconetti a run for her money as the great face of silent cinema, giving a performance that is built and sustained solely through the emotions conveyed through her remarkably expressive eyes.  Otherwise she’s languid to the point of woodeness, though that’s also the case with all of the performances in the film.  Only the performance by Epstein’s sister, who I was shocked to find out is none other than the great unheralded director Marie Epstein, achieves its resonance through any kind of physical action; otherwise this is a film involving turbulent emotions swirling beneath stoic faces and (with the notable exception of the magnificently rendered seascapes) statically rendered, claustrophobic interior spaces.

But if the melodramatic plot is a bit silly and the performances of the type that involve sad-eyed offscreen gazing that sometimes feels endless, La Coeur fidèle is otherwise a directoral tour-de-force, with the intense emotions conjured up through Epstein’s montage editing, juxtaposing beautiful images of churning water, evocatively desolate seaside quays, etc. to slowly build to a shattering and haunting conclusion.  I’m sure this all has to do with Epstein’s own theories of cinema (he was a writer and film theorist before he took up actual filmmaking), of which I hate to admit I’m completely ignorant of at this time.  But I have Fall of the House of Usher (1928) in my possession for viewing, and I’ve been inspired to explore Epstein’s work more fully in the immediate future.

Memories of a Movie:

furious queerness

Desert Fury (Lewis Allen, 1947) is the type of film that has to be seen to be believed–it’s one of the weirdest, queerest films I’ve ever seen, which is why it’s so interesting that it came out of the Hollywood studio system.  It’s essentially an odd, introverted B-film Paramount inexplicably plumped up with A-list trappings such as its use of “blazing Technicolor” (so screamed the poster taglines) and an absurd number of swanky Edith Head outfits for Lizabeth Scott to parade about in.  Curiously though the same amount of attention wasn’t given to the script, and thank goodness–a whole lot of truly bizarre character dynamics remain that would like have likely been erased if more attention had been paid to it.

Where to start?  All of the film’s publicity would make one think that the film features a torrid romance between Scott and strapping young Burt Lancaster, but that is actually far from the case–all of the other characters seem so involved with each other that they barely seem to notice poor Burt.  Mary Astor plays Scott’s mother, but with Astor stomping about in slacks, barking orders, and endlessly calling Scott “Baby,” I have to agree with one of the reviewers on the film’s IMDb page that their dialogue instead “suggests an older Lesbian and her young, restless companion,” particularly after a long scene where Scott begs to start working at her mother’s successful casino/bar, the Purple Sage(?!).

But that’s just the start: the real doozy is the obsessive relationship between John Hodiak and Wendell Corey, the latter in his screen debut–after Scott takes a shining to Hodiak and starts inviting herself to the men’s ranch, Corey flies into eye-clawing mode, followed by a  set of dramatic hissy fits.  The queer pièce de résistance, however, is when Hodiak describes to Scott how he met Corey: wandering around a deserted Times Square in the middle of the night, Corey bought the down-on-his-luck Hodiak a sandwich, took him back to his place for the night, and they’ve “been together ever since.”  All of these bizarre character dynamics play out against picturesque desert scenery so oversaturated that it begins to feel as artificial as a studio set, further heightening the overall sensation of overripe surreality.  Oh, not very good film at all, but it’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed one quite so much.

Memories of a Movie:

announcement

vertigo film preservation blogathon banner

…and it’s an expensive one as well.  Which is why I’m excited to participate again in the annual For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon, slated this year for May 13 – 18.  Describing this year’s project, the Self Styled Siren says that “we are working to get a piece of film history out there for everyone to see, with a score that’s worthy of its importance.”  That bit of film history is no less than getting a score recorded for and digitizing The White Shadow, the silent film that a young Alfred Hitchcock worked extensively on that caused quite a stir when it was rediscovered in New Zealand the year before last. Details of the entire project are spelled out in detail over at This Island Rod, and while I wish we were doing something that directly involved celluloid preservation, film preservation in general is an endlessly worthy topic that always needs a higher profile.  That, and I had a great time composing my contributions last year, which can be read here and here.

So with that, see you in May!

White Shadow Hitchcock
Still from “The White Shadow”