SCREEN GRABS Though good new movies continue to emerge every year, no one would argue the Italian film industry has experienced anything that might be termed a “golden age” since the 1970s. (The first one was fairly early in the silent era—Italy was a more ambitious and sophisticated producer than the US before Hollywood began eclipsing it in the late 1910s.) But oh man: For a good thirty years after WW2, arguably no nation’s cinema was more exciting, or (excepting Hollywood again) internationally popular than Italy’s.
If Italy is the birthplace of the “madonna and whore” school of viewing womankind, one might fairly-enough apply the same logic to its filmic output during those fabulous, prolific decades. On the one hand, auteurs from DeSica and Rossellini through Fellini, Pasolini, Wertmuller and Bertolucci wowed arthouse audiences around the world with their unique creative visions. On the other, pulpy genre exercises made largely for dubbed export—including vogues for “swords ‘n sandals” muscleman adventures, giallo horror-thrillers, and softcore sexploitation—kept the industry’s economic wheels turning until the advent of cable and VHS largely killed off their markets.
Both sides happen to be getting represented at the Castro this weekend in two otherwise unrelated, back-to-back programs. First up on Saturday, Cinema Italia SF is pretending a full 12-hours-plus on Saturday of movies by the late, great Michelangelo Antonioni, the medium’s principal poet of postwar spiritual malaise. The five films playing in chronological order encompass nearly all of his best: There are enigmatic vehicles for his muse Monica Vitti, the international breakthrough L’Avventura (1960), the next year’s La Notte, and his fascinating experiment in color Red Desert (1964). Antonioni moved into English-language cinema for a period bookended by ’66 Swinging London mystery Blowup—almost certainly the “artiest” film ever to become a true popular hit—and 1975’s The Passenger, which starred Jack Nicholson and Last Tango in Paris’ Maria Schneider. All these movies reward repeat viewings, and should be a particular treat as seen in the Castro program’s combination of new 35mm prints and restored DCPs. \
The next day celebrates Italy’s greatest commercial contribution to 60s moviegoing: The so-called “spaghetti western,” a term applied to European-produced (Spain was the other major contributor) action films ostensibly set in the American Wild West. The long-popular genre was actually dying out in the US when these more violent, cynical foreign variations arrived to revitalize it, at least briefly. Their undisputed superstars were director Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood, who was just a TV actor when the latter hired him to play the laconic, quick-drawing antihero in 1964’s low-budget sleeper smash A Fistful of Dollars. Four years later, Leone couldn’t afford Eastwood anymore—so he had to make do with Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, and Henry Fonda (strikingly cast as a despicable villain) in Once Upon a Time in the West, arguably the apex of his sardonic, monumentalist style.
Leone’s fame tended to overshadow the work of nearly every other spaghetti western specialist—and admittedly, the genre did produce a whole lot of worthless, interchangeable junk before it petered out in the early ’70s. But one major talent was Sergio Corbucci, whose 1966 Django was as influential as the Dollars trilogy, and whose The Great Silence plays Sunday with West, which was released the same year. Starring the seemingly unlikely western duo of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Klaus Kinski (though virtually every major male European star made spag westerns in this period), it’s a striking, wintry parable about a mute gunfighter squaring off against a sadistic bounty hunter ally named Loco. (There are no prizes for guessing which actor plays which part.) Despite its classic status amongst fans, Silence is rarely revived on the big screen these days. As a further incentive, both films are scored by the inimitable Ennio Morricone.
Antonioni: Sat/28, Castro. More info here.
Spaghetti Westerns: Sun/29, Castro. More info here.
Elsewhere this coming week (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted):
One of the most gorgeous documentaries ever made, Canadian director Alison McAlpine’s film trains its camera on Chile’s Atacama Desert, “where the sky is more urgent than the land.” In that sparsely populated region, the nocturnal view of the heavens is so startlingly alive with the earth’s rotation, shooting stars, and other phenomena that you’d be forgiven to think numerous jaw-dropping shots here are actually the result of elaborate special effects.
In addition to the insights of astronomers and physicists studying space from this extraordinary terrestrial vantage, we spend time with locals who claim to see UFOs, feel supernatural presences or experience intense spirituality here—and who can blame them? Simply watching Cielo is at times akin to a kind of awe-inspiring, meditative rapture. It plays three times at Center for the Arts this week. Thurs/28-Sat/28, YBCA. More info here.
GODARD MON AMOUR
Jean-Luc Godard made a notable non-appearance in old friend and colleague Agnes Varda’s recent documentary Faces Places—he invited her to his house, then wouldn’t answer the door. One suspects he’s no more willingly associated with this latest from French director Michel Hazanvicius, best known for his work with actor Jean Dusjardin (The Artist, the OSS 117 spoofs). It’s a barbed valentine in which Louis Garrel plays the dyspeptic Godard at the height of his international fame. In 1967, he was in the process of moving from commercial (though still experimental) projects towards the more rigorously, radically political essay-cinema that would occupy him until the mid-’70s—and which he never fully abandoned thereafter.
Stacey Martin portrays Anne Wiazemsky, the much younger woman who became his muse, collaborator, star and wife for the next few years—until she, like many before and after, was driven away by his exasperating, petulant, contrarian nature. Part homage, part dissection, this cheeky drama (based on the recently deceased Wiaemsky’s memoirs) is a cleverly meta piece that is often very funny, and only gains additional edge from the fact that you just know Godard loathes its very existence. Embarcadero. More info here.
Partnering with the Bay Area Book Festival for a third year, the Pacific Film Archive is again hosting this five-day bonanza of screenings, panels, keynote speeches and other events celebrating the ties between cinema and literature. Adaptations to be shown will include John Frankenheimer’s original version of The Manchurian Candidate (introduced by Greil Marcus), Alison Maclkean’s Jesus’ Son (from Denis Johnson short stories), Raul Ruiz’s Proust epic Time Regained, and Czech animator Karel Zeman’s 1961 The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. Films focusing more on the author themselves are Pablo Larrain’s marvelous biographical fantasia Neruda, and Jennifer Kroot’s homage to a fellow Bay Area talent, The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin. Among the guest speakers will be famed documentarian Errol Morris, who’ll show his acclaimed 1991 screen translation of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Wed/25-Sun/29, PFA. More info here.
K8 HARDLY’S OUTFITUMENTARY
Video artist K8 Hardy discovered her artistic aesthetic and political sensibility through the punk bands and radical, queer-embracing feminism of the Riot Grrrl movement around the turn of the millennium. She exercised that cultural identity through a long-term project of self-documentation recording her disparate “looks” and living circumstances in 21st century NYC. A mosaic of personal evolution as a form of performance art, Outfitumentary is co-presented by SF Cinematheque, Frameline and Roxie Theater at the latest venue. Wed/25, Roxie. More info here.
Though stage plays are not customarily a good source of scary cinema, Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s adaptation of their English theater piece provides a pretty decent 97 minutes of spookiness. An author and TV host specializing in the debunking of alleged supernatural phenomena (Andy Nyman) accepts the challenge to look into three cases an irate viewer claims he can’t disprove. Each one provides a creepy good time with a slightly cartoony, comic undercurrent. But what lifts these Stories above well-crafted familiarity is a long wrap-up that comprises a whole additional story itself, and sports some interesting reality-warping leaps. Opera Plaza. More info here.
GRACE JONES: BLOODLIGHT AND BAMI
When Jones first appeared on the music scene over four decades ago, few would have guessed this androgynous, Jamaican-born model turned boldly theatrical disco diva would be more than a short-lived novelty act. Now on the brink of 70, and still stunning, she’s fully ensconced as a cultural icon in various media. Sophie Fiennes’ documentary eschews chronicling her fabled career to date of mixing recent concert performances with footage of this colorfully assertive personality simply going about her regular globe-trotting business. Embarcadero. More info here.
SUMMER IN THE FOREST
Randall Wright”s pleasing documentary portrays everyday life at L”Arche, a progressive institution fifty miles north of Paris that has become a model for care of mental
special needs” patients around the world. Where once such people were hidden away in prison-like asylums or closely minded by burdened family members, co-founder Jean Vanier’s vision allows the mentally disabled to live in their own community—an exceedingly pleasant one outside a small town, on the edge of a forest—working, socializing and even marrying on their own terms and within their own limitations. L’Arche has sparked numerous spinoff communities (we see one such newbie in Bethlehem), and it’s hard to argue against their wisdom. Unfortunately, it’s also hard to imagine such enlightened treatment happening in the US outside the expensive private health-care sector. Opera Plaza. More info here.
This first feature from director Ryan Prows, co-written by and starring other members of his comedy collective Tomm Fondle, isn’t what you might expect from such folk: The laughs are almost subterranean in an ensemble black comedy/thriller that plays out its increasingly outlandish action with a fatalistic poker face. Several lives unluckily intersect around a downscale L.A. motel, all of them tied to an unsavory hustler who runs a taco stand as a front for much, much shadier (and often lethal) doings. Lowlife is structured in chapters that cover overlapping incidents from different points of view, a la Pulp Fiction. But that film’s giddy garrulousness is replaced by a much more vinegary sensibility that is close-mouthed but just as clever in its own way. This is one of those under-the-radar sleepers most people will (one hopes) eventually discover at home, but here’s your first, quite possibly last chance to catch it on the big screen. 4 Star Theatre. More info here.