Rec's Wrap-Up - 2009

Posted January 12, 2010 at 2:49am by Brecht Andersch, edited December 31, 2010 at 2:20am

Asked by Brian Darr, that stand-up gent of the Bay Area Cinephilia Scene, to contribute for the first time to his annual year's end round-up, "I Only Have Two Eyes", posted in his most excellent Hell on Frisco Bay, wascally webel wecks, as usual, had to get a little cute... Charged with producing a list of the year's ten most memorable "experiences" in Bay Area repertory film-going, Recs opted to go all Jimi Hendrix on your asses, and the result is that most of this piece has been banished to these, my semi-regular haunts (I might as well acknowledge here, that yes, indeed, I've abandoned my posts - due, as alluded to below, the need to channel my energies into other pro-celluloid activities. Never fear! Recs is not dead, merely in hibernation. Meanwhile, my FOFF colleagues have their turn at bat. It was my pleasure and privilege, over the course of seven months and thirty-two columns in 2009, to guide you like Charon thru the endless labyrinths. Now, for the time being, you're on your own, kids! G'luck!!)... Now enjoy the plunge - into my quicksands!!! Ha ha ha ha!!!....

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Ah... I would be recruited to this task the very year - due to other unavoidable obligations - I'd eased up on my decades-long mad-cap cinephiliac pursuits... Going over my 2009 calendar has prompted more pain than pleasure - all those once-in-a-lifetime this print runs through these projectors experiences which can never be repeated in exactly the same way, now lost, lost forever, on a river of no return, non-experienced moments disappearing like tears in rain... No, it is too late! We must move on!.... Despite the pain occasioned, I've managed to come up with a list of "ten experiences":

1) The SFMOMA Projectionist/Open Space Blogger Experience:

Perhaps the greatest thrill over the past year has been to write about a film screening for the SFMOMA blog, then project the show. To engage for days and weeks of communion/mind-meld with a given film artist, write a piece on a specific work, and then devote several nerve-wracking hours towards getting it on the screen perfectly is quite a blast, so I hope to be forgiven for beginning this list with a vanity shout-out to Jeanne Dielman (2/26, 2/28), Stalker (4/9, 4/11), Portrait of Jason (7/9, 7/11), Subversive Documentaries (9/1), Interiors (10/29), and Kenneth Anger (12/17). The last show was particularly anxiety-inducing as Anger was in the audience, and has been known to put hexes on both writers and projectionists who've displeased him, so I was anticipating a potential double-whammy... Fortunately, as far as I can currently tell, everything went fine, but if my life takes a sudden nose-dive in the near future, you'll know the cause. On the other hand, I didn't have to project the Subversive Documentaries, and writing about Franju's Hôtel des Invalides and Resnais's Le Chant du Styrène, then coming in to see them in 35 for the first time (impeccable prints, immaculately projected) in the theater in which I work, was an ecstatic experience, indeed!

2) The Film on Film Foundation Experience:

Since I'm still in vanity mode, I'll get this out of the way: being involved in programming and presenting rare films is always a thrill, especially ones I've a strong hankering to see. This was especially the case for Accident (4/5 PFA), our double-feature of Fear and Desire & The Delinquents (5/10 Roxie), and Patty Hearst (6/28 PFA). Aside from the Schrader, I'd only seen these on video (the bootleg of the Kubrick was like watching a documentary on snow shot in Pixel-vision), so seeing them in 35, for the most part in gorgeous prints, was a delight. Patty Hearst, a ludicrously underrated work (Schrader's best?), was given an extra boost by my Film on Film collaborationist Carl Martin pointing out in his intro that its opening shot had been lensed only a few hundred feet-or-so away from the PFA screen...

3) The Un- or Under-Seen Josef von Sternberg Experience:

At this point in my cinephiliac career, I'm less in heroic Deer Hunter-mode, than that of the yeoman farmer: I've planted my crops, and idly recline on the porch, savoring puffs from my corn-cob, and perusing the almanac (usually the PFA calendar) re. when to expect the harvest. This year, there was a bumper-crop of von Sternbergs, some of which I'd only seen in 16mm, or on video, while others I'd waited for for decades... The former category included Underworld (1/15) and The Last Command (1/18 - visionary masochism at Everest-heights of aesthetic accomplishment brought even further to precise fever-pitch by the astonishing improvisatory piano-accompaniment of the brilliant Judith Rosenberg), and the latter, Thunderbolt (1/31), with George Bancroft's unanticipated (by me) sensitive performance as a Tough Con Cruel Bastard who ultimately reveals a heart partially made of gold. Thunderbolt added new layers to my understanding of Sternberg's masochism, and the film was this year, perhaps, for me the summit of that type of experience I seek in projected celluloid - that is, a personal vision expressed in profoundly passionate artistry, yoked to a deep knowledge and exploitation of the aesthetic effect film technology at its purest has on the reptilian brain - for me, this combo induces religious ecstasy.

4) The "Irving Lerner - Man of Mystery" Experience:

Since many years ago seeing the dedicatory title at the end of New York, New York, "Our respect and gratitude to Irving Lerner, 1909-1976", I've been intrigued to find out just who this shadowy figure was. The ensuing years have provided further curious details: he worked as an associate not only to Scorsese, but to Robert Flaherty, Anthony Mann, Stanley Kubrick, and Robert Siodmak, among others, as well as directing films of his own. One of his directorial credits, Murder by Contract, I'd seen several years ago, and been much impressed by (as had Scorsese - it was a big influence on Taxi Driver, as it turns out, and Scorsese compares this film to Bresson and Godard), but I'd seen nothing else until the S.F. Cinematheque & Yerba Buena Center for the Arts screening of The Savage Eye and Muscle Beach (2/18). The latter was a collaboration with Joseph Strick, in semi-experimental documentary form - quite nice - while the former was the most scathing, yet breathtakingly alive and gorgeous portrait of early-60's SoCal America I've ever encountered (and as there are a number of such, this is saying a lot). Lerner is credited as "technical advisor" on Savage Eye, but some research revealed him to be an early collaborator on the film with Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers, and the aforementioned Strick. He apparently dropped out at some point during the film's several-year-long production history, but given its semi-experimental/documentary tone, he might have remained a major influence. In the 40's, Lerner had produced a short doc directed by Alexander Hammid, so his experimental/doc credentials run deep... Further research (via his Wikipedia page) found him accused of being a Stalinist spy for the GPU, while an additional viewing of Murder by Contract (9/29) at the Roxie convinced me we have a semi-masterpiece of American mother-worship carried to psychotic depths on our hands (poor Vince Edwards attempts to re-enter the birth canal only to die there)... This screening of Contract was paired with Lerner's not as good, but still quite interesting City of Fear (also starring Vince Edwards), and this brings us up to date with all I've been able to discover re. Irving Lerner, much of it over the past year... Who was this man of mystery? Please, someone good write a biography!

5) The Elliot Lavine Experience:

It had been some years since the great programmer Elliot Lavine had absconded from the Roxie, but then suddenly, in May and September, he was back with not one, but TWO Noir festivals (take that, Noir City!)! The Roxie was restored to life doubly, if ever-so-briefly... Given the amount of words I've expended on the Lavine-programmed Murder by Contract and City of Fear above, I'll keep this short: Lavine-Noir gave me my long-awaited first-ever screening of Joseph H. Lewis's So Dark the Night (9/21- the only noir set in Provence?) in a stunning print, as well as my first-ever 35mm viewing of the aptly-titled Pushover (9/20), which turns all hot-blooded American males (such as myself) into quivering lumps of oozing jello with its bracing appearance by the young Kim Novak sans bra. Lavine's curatorial efforts on these series, as usual, was terrific. We can expect, or, at least, hope for more in 2010? Someone chain this valuable man to the Roxie! Don't let him out! Do whatever it takes, but get him to program more, hopefully on a continual basis!

6) The Nagisa Oshima Experience:

This was the one I'd been waiting for - the big, full-bodied Oshima retro at the PFA. I stuck in my thumb, and pulled out many plums, such as long-time faves like Cruel Story of Youth (5/29), The Sun's Burial (6/20), Boy (6/6), and The Ceremony (6/20), and the unseen (even better for being oh-so-torturing and tantalizing as their titles stared up at me from the filmography cruelly provided by Audie Bock): Three Resurrected Drunkards (6/4 and 6/25), Shiro Amakusa, Christian Rebel (6/18), A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Song (6/27), Pleasures of the Flesh (7/11), and Double Suicide: Japanese Summer (7/18). I wrote about Resurrected Drunkards in my FOFF blog, and was fortunate to be able to see both screenings - not that I've any idea what I saw either time, for it really put the zap on my head... In fact, I don't know what to think, or say about the series overall - it left my head in a whirl, my view of Oshima not quite turned inside-out, but certainly semi-revolutionized. This will take time to process, and repeat viewings. Any chance for a reprise double-feature of Pleasures of the Flesh and Shiro Amakusa, PFA? And next, could you do Yoshishige Yoshida?

7) The Yerba Buena Experience:

Joel Shepard, the Mastermind of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' film program, has for years provided a much-needed home for a niche of often déclassé art and exploitation cinema, and I often find myself at one of his shows when in need of a fix along these lines (which is pretty much all the time)... This year provided superb prints of Jonathan Kaplan's superb blaxploitation epic-in-a-bottle, Truck Turner (4/2 - with the recently deceased Isaac Hayes), Marco Ferreri's inventive Dillinger is Dead (6/12), and Wes Craven's original Last House on the Left (5/9), among others. I left all these shows sated and gratified, etc. They hit the spot. Thank you, Mr. Shepard.

8) The American Zoetrope @The Castro Experience:

Don't know how this happened, but in 2009 the Castro (world's greatest existing Movie Palace?) became an outlet for wonderful packed screenings of wonderful prints of early American Zoetrope efforts, such as Coppola's magnificent Rain People (5/1 - with Coppola, George Lucas, Carroll Ballard, Walter Murch + three wives - on stage for a discussion afterwards. Seems they were giving Francis some kinda award), American Graffiti (8/12 - Candy Clark 4ever! She's bitchin'!), and Wenders' Kings of the Road (1/18 - yeah, I know this technically isn't a Zoetrope picture, but, hey! Wim was shortly to slave away in Francis's sweat-shop, hired partially on the basis, no doubt, of this early major work - perhaps Wenders' finest?). I'd previously only seen the first two on video, and the Wenders only (repeatedly) in 16, so all these screenings got me high... I don't understand the Zoetrope/Abel Ferrara connection (other than ethnically, and that Billy Wirth, the male lead in Ferrara's insanely undervalued Body Snatchers, would have made an excellent Sal Paradise in the oft-promised to-be-produced-by-Coppola On the Road, if it had been made in '93), but there's gotta be one, 'cause my second 35mm screening of Ms. 45 (one of Ferrara's two known masterpieces, the other being Bad Lieutenant) occurred at the Castro (5/21). Slightly faded, but, as always - awesome.

9) The PFA Experience:

There's been much talk of the PFA in the above jottings, but as yet we haven't reached the climax... I was frequently lured to my home-away-from-home by their best-ever in my experience perfect 2.35/2.4 CinemaScope projection, or by Steve Seid's as always superb and infinitely pleasurable programming and curatorial efforts. In these two categories, you'll find Wild River (4/19 - Kazan applauded by a left-wing audience in Berkeley!), Phil Karlson's Gunman's Walk (5/26 - the second PFA screening in roughly a year of a previously unknown-to-me Karlson masterpiece! Perhaps - after The Searchers, of course - the greatest exploration of racist psychosis in Western form?), Eureka (7/10), A Boy and His Dog (7/16), and Zardoz (8/13 - a great Boorman film - but why are my ears ringing with idiot laughter?). I'd seen and loved all these before, but as I'd seen Wild River and Zardoz previously only via the Dreaded Medium (**UNTRUE!! Alzheimer clouds part, and remind me of 35 and 16 'Scope, respectively, initial viewings oh, so many years ago...**), these were especially important viewings, with, in both cases, surprising audience reactions (**more to the point...**). The Human Condition was a film I've long longed to see fully and properly, and alas, for me this desire hasn't quite yet been fulfilled... I was able to drag myself out of bed on that stormy Sunday (2/15), and get across the bay just in time to be an hour late for Kobayoshi's three part, nine-hour epic (a true designation in this case), but I took my seat and partook... I'd seen the second half in childhood in a Manhattan venue of some kind, and found myself in profound identification with Tatsuya Nakadai, a Marxist Japanese soldier cut off from his troop, and wandering the wilds of Manchuria in search of deliverance and/or human understanding, and finding neither. Like life, the film goes on and on, growing increasingly delirious as the hours progress. Unlike life, the hours are filled by pressurized melodrama, and ecstasy-inducing black-and-white Shochiku Grandscope. I'd seen the first forty-five minutes or so some years ago at the UC, but found the film at this time for some reason distasteful - perhaps due to the unfortunate print? I parted, figuring I'd see a pristine version at some point, which had finally arrived, BUT ALL NINE HOURS IN ONE GO?!! At best, this was an ahistorical screening methodology, for, if I recall properly, the three three-hour parts were meant to be screened on successive evenings. At any rate, I fortified myself with several runs to Café La Strada for cappuccinos during breaks, downing the hot beverages as fast as possible as I lurked under my umbrella on the way back to hell. By film's end, my eyes were as crazily popped-out as the deranged Nakadai's... The film will now forever be intertwined for me with the sound of gales of rain descending on the PFA's roof, turning the building into a boat lost at sea, floating creakily in the storm-swept waves... And I'm rendered an Ahab, of sorts, in pursuit of that elusive fifteen minutes still unseen... Two odds-and-ends: Léon Morin, prêtre (7/23), which I'd seen previously only in 16, was sensually austere Melville, full of steamy bisexual aggression on the part of Emmanuelle Riva, and the same without the bisexual part by priest Jean-Paul Belmondo. Nazi repression and French Catholicism make fervid bedfellows - great stuff... Ah, so sorry, Thunderbolt, but I just remembered my screening of Fritz Lang's Secret Beyond the Door (8/7). Now, this was truly the Everest-summit cinephiliac experience of 2009. I'd only seen it a few times before on video, but UCLA's recent restoration was every bit worth the long wait to see it on film. Joan Bennett at her most ravishing, Michael Redgrave at his most distant-yet-dashing, a HOT sadomasochistic commencement in Mexico, chiaroscuro to die for, perfect shots without number of drifting cigarette-smoke, which you know Fritz had to do forty takes of to get just right, and so much more... Once arrived at its proper New England-esque setting, Secret builds to a shuddering conflagration in which male and female psychoses mirror each other to infinity... Some years ago, a friend of mine said, as we exited an incredible rock show: "What a brain-gasm!" By Secret's climax, I'd achieved soul-gasm (or at least psyche-gasm)... A towering, yet unsung Masterpiece, Secret is now firmly ensconced as my Favorite Lang film (and I love so many!)...

10) The Blessed Double-Bill Experience:

Finally, the close of '09 delivered unto us two oddly assorted, but somehow delightfully apposite double bills at the PFA, the first of these consisting of Preminger's Whirlpool and Resnais's Mélo (12/4). I'd seen only a crappy 16mm print of Whirlpool previously, which I'd been unable to appreciate, but in this stunning new 35mm print, Whirlpool filled the screen, my vision, and psyche, and I joyfully descended into this vortex, which thematically mirrored the climax of what I said above re. Secret, so I won't essay any further except to say: aren't Gene Tierney's eyes twin Whirlpools in which one longs to dive? They are for me... Mélo I saw when it first came out in '88, amidst a period of crushing heartbreak, and its intense mood of whispered love, passion, and secret betrayal always evokes that time for me, and makes this film, graced with superlative performances by Sabine Azéma, and André Dussollier, my favorite late Resnais (I'll sneak in here a mention that two weeks before, I'd had my most relaxed-thus-far screening of Resnais's exquisite Je t'aime, je t'aime - 11/21). I'll end with the second Blessed Double-Bill, of Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse and Skidoo (12/19). Tho by the same director, they couldn't be more different in tone, and made, therefore, a strange, yet pungent and savory mix. I'd seen Bonjour Tristesse in 16 'Scope and various video versions, but never in 35. The print shown by the PFA was mind-blowing in the intensity of its blues and greens (its rendering of the southern coast of France no doubt had a big influence on Contempt), while the adolescent nervousness of the film's dramaturgy had never felt so hyper-real as when seeing it in the manner it was meant to be seen, and the tragedy of the palpable incestuous feelings of father/daughter David Niven and Jean Seberg was never more intense than now, when I find myself a father of a beloved daughter. "Wake up, man!" I wanted to say to this hapless fellow - "Look what you're doing to her by your pathetic immaturity!" Films, of course, strike us differently at the various stages of life... Skidoo I'd seen once before, many years ago at the Red Vic. The PFA screening of Otto's personal IB Technicolor print confirms this film for me as a major work of cinema - certainly in the top 500. I forthwith cease relations with anyone who disagrees in this matter - how could any sentient being, once exposed to an acid-trip experienced thru the eyes of Jackie Gleason (complete with dancing trash cans), or Groucho Marx smoking a joint (or, rather, "pumpkin"), etc, foreswear these delights?

I somehow left Cy Endfield's Hell Drivers (9/6 PFA) and Losey's The Prowler (8/30 PFA) out of this discussion, but, alas, we're outta time. Besides, a new Blessed (or perhaps Accursed?) Double-Bill, the first of 2010, has begun to exert its lure, and I find my imagination's finger-hold on 2009 slipping. I speak of Playtime & Salò at the PFA in late January... 2010 beckons.