SCREEN GRABS In an instance of art imitating life, this week’s notable film events are heavy on politics and Russia, with sidenotes of sex, gore, and introspection. If it’s light escapism you’re looking for, you won’t find much here—even Friday’s biggest commercial opening, the un-previewed 12 Strong, does not sound like a fun time. (It dramatizes a real-life U.S. Special Forces unit’s mission in Afghanistan immediately after 9/11.) That seems fair enough: After all, 2018 is clearly not going to be for the faint-hearted.
EISENSTEIN AND HIS CONTEMPORARIES
A century ago, silent cinema was at its artistic zenith (as well as its commercial endpoint), and Hollywood was already dominating much of global exhibition. Yet no nation’s filmic output seemed more urgently modern than that of the still-practically-newborn Soviet Union, which at least in its early years supported art in arious media as experimentall bold as its previously-untried governmental system. No single filmmaker—arguably anywhere—had more influence on others than Sergei Eisenstein, whose startling leaps forward in montage in many ways set the template for modern film editing. Yet his extraordinary career was also a tragic one, ultimately bound to the whims of the repressive Stalinist regime like many a lesser-known talent.
This PFA series looks at a remarkable time and place in movie history, encompassing several famous classics by Eisenstein himself (Strike, Battleship Potemkin, Ivan the Terrible etc.) as well as additional works by his brilliant contemporaries including Dovzhenko, Pudovkin and Kuleshov. It kicks off with 1916’s A Life for a Life, one of the few remaining features from Russia’s pre-Revolutionary film industry. Each screening will feature live musical accompaniment and a lecture by UC Berkeley’s Anne Nesbet, an expert in the field. Wed/17-Wed/April 25, Pacific Film Archive. More info here.
THE ROAD MOVIE
A Russia that would surely be unrecognizable to Sergei and his colleagues is on jaw-dropping display in this compilation of dashcam footage uploaded by drivers and downloaded by director Dmitri Kalashnikov. It’s apparently a Wild West on wheels in the Near East, with spontaneous interactions with pedestrian crazies and entrapping police, drives through epic fires, and no end of calamitous crashes preserved for your vicarious pleasure.
At about 75 minutes, the hair-raising hilarity is just enough to leave you craving more, not enough to leave you exhausted and tire-marked. The Road Movie is proof that truth is stranger than fiction—particularly when it’s going 100 mph through a blizzard, sliding off an embankment into a river, then floating down said river as the passengers simply laugh. Opens Friday, Roxie. More info here.
THE FINAL YEAR
2017 gave us Mother! In 2018, there is unlikely to be a more masochistic viewing experience than this documentary by Greg Barker about the last months of the Obama White House. While handling crises involving Iran, Syria, Cameroon, and more, the administration dealt with the looming matter of Presidential “legacy” and prepared handing things over to a new regime—which absolutely no one, it’s clear here, really imagined would turn out to be Donald Trump’s.
Casting a particular spotlight on the roles of UN Ambassador Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes (with just occasional access to The Man himself), this intimate behind-the-scenes record may catch personnel in somewhat best-behavior mode, what with the camera being on and all. Yet it’s clear that whatever the administration’s failings, its personnel were distinguished by deep expertise, ability to compromise, and genuine good intentions. Why is seeing this 2016 flashback a masochistic experience? Duh: Look at what we’ve got now. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll want to slit your wrists if you haven’t already. Opens Friday at Bay Area theaters.
MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT
An international prize winner at the time, Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s 1968 Cuban feature nonetheless took five full years to get any US release, landing on numerous critics’ 1973 “best” lists. Even then, it remained so little-seen that the PFA’s current limited run of a 4K restoration represents the now half-century-old film’s Bay Area theatrical debut. (Though you’ve probably never seen Memories, you may be familiar with Alea from his arthouse hit a quarter-century later, Strawberries and Chocolate.)
A sort of semi-dramatic essay film that’s equal parts neo-realism, political documentary, and experiment, it follows a jaded bourgeois man (Sergio Corrieri) in the weeks after his unhappy wife and nearly everyone else he knows have fled Havana for the US in the wake of the Batista government’s overthrow. There’s not much “plot,” beyond our protagonist’s desultory involvement with a neurotic aspiring actress. But there’s a lot of intriguing footage of life in a land on which an “iron curtain” had rapidly descended after years of being a virtual U.S. colony, plus an interesting, ambivalent perspective on the transitional period Communist Cuba had already largely left behind when Memories was made. Thurs/18-Sat/3 (three shows only), Pacific Film Archive. More info here.
The 13th annual edition of the Dan Savage-curated amateur sex film festival is back with a new best-of compiled from its larger “hometown” Seattle and Portland events. Sure to play arpeggios all up and down the Kinsey scale, it offers twenty-one shorts including such savory titles as Desert Pussy, Is Queefing an Instrument? and Dildrone (hint: its exactly what you think). Our favorite description, for A Sunday Hike, is “The Blair Witch Project meets an anarchist EDM festival in this witchy, magical, queer porn.” Once a strictly-local affair, at this point Hump flicks are submitted from all over—if you get inspired (and freaky), you might have one yourself in next year’s lineup, competing for such prizes as Best Humor or Best Kink. Wed/17-Sat/27, Victoria Theatre. More info here.
REVERSE ANGLE: CINEMA LOOKS AT ITSELF
It’s been a criticism of some directors from Bogdanovich to Tarantino and beyond that they make movies that are over-much about other movies. But homage, imitation, and pastiche are different from self-reflection and analysis. The latter attributes are what’s on display in this PFA series of documentaries that “interrogate the medium” in terms of its sociiopoilitical impact and moral aspirations, both good and ill.
The globe-spanning selections encompass looks at an original Nazi propaganda feature (Yael Hersonski’s Israeli A Film Unfinished), Ross Lipman’s Notfilm about the 1965 collaboration between Buster Keaton and Samuel Beckett, Chris Marker’s Tarkovsky investigation One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich, and films about film preservation or its lack (the German Cinema: A Public Affair, Uruguayan A Useful Life). This Sunday, Bill Morrison will present in person Dawson City: Frozen Time, his wonderful recent chronicle of a Canadian Gold Rush town and the cache of “lost” silent films that was found in the icy ground under a building there. Sat/20-Thurs/Feb. 22, Pacific Film Archive. More info here.
The Madrid-born director best known as Jess Franco (he accumulated many onscreen pseudonyms) had a fairly respectable entry into films, his career taking off with 1961 horror hit The Awful Dr. Orloff. He spent the rest of that decade making a variety of genre films with some notable international stars like Klaus Kinski, Eddie Constantine, Jack Palance, and Christopher Lee. But at decade’s end his fortunes began to decline, resulting in ever-shrinking budgets and ever-sleazier projects. Not that it seemed to bother him—indeed, he seemed quite content to make a wildly prolific body of violent, sexploitative work right up to his 2013 death. (Some sources estimate he made over 200 features; the precise number is anyone’s guess.)
One of his better-regarded films from the ’80s is this 1981 thriller, a for-hire gig cashing in on the then-ultrahot slasher vogue kickstarted by Halloween. Five years after disfigured youth Miguel is institutionalized for killing a girl at a party, murders begin targeting pretty students at the language boarding school his family runs. It’s a bloody cheesefest that, like many of Franco’s films, is distinguished by a mix of elements by turns senseless, inept, eccentric, and stylish. The dreadful dubbed dialogue provides one level of entertainment, while gorehounds will be satisfied by the array of gruesome deaths provided (red-hot fireplace tongs, anyone?). Let’s hope the Drafthouse found an uncut print of this movie that was banned in the UK as a “video nasty.” Tues/23, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.