Considering all the odds against it—real estate/rent issues, changing audiences, ever-more home viewing options—it’s pretty amazing that San Francisco still has any arthouse scene at all, let alone a pretty substantial one. We even have several regular or sporadic venues for revivals and rep-house cinema. This week brings a particular wealth of old movies that will nonetheless be (mostly) new to you, ranging from French melodramas from over half a century ago to a vintage SF punk-scene memento, a previously suppressed documentary, and a cultish whatsit from 2009.
The French Had A Name For It 6
This is the sixth and final (for the time at least) being installment of Midcentury Productions’ occasional series showcasing variably obscure French commercial features from the 1930s through the 60s that more or less paralleled (and in some cases preceded) the American film noir vogue. Here we reach “the end of the line,” as radical changes in viewer, studio and artistic interests spelled pretty much the finish of a vaguely defined genre’s run in the “turbulent Sixties.” But the series is also taking a hiatus because its programmer Don Malcolm will soon be publishing the book he’s been working on all along, about precisely that genre.
This five-day installment provides no major revelations, but its selections chart a transitional moment, as figures of the old guard passed torch (not always happily) to talents of the Nouvelle Vague. That process is rarely as explicit as in Henry Verneuil’s 1963 Any Number Can Win, a brassy caper in which creaky old Jean Gabin attempts to pull a big heist on the Riviera with callow young Alain Delon. It’s an exercise in the kind of big-swinging-dick lifestyle fantasy cinema that would soon become ubiquitous thanks to James Bond.
The next year, Delon gave one of his liveliest performances in Rene Clement’s Joy House, as another handsome lout, a gigolo who finds shelter from a jealous husband’s thugs in the villa of a rich American window (Lola Albright) and her nymphet cousin (Jane Fonda). They seem easy marks, yet it’s our hero who discovers he’s being played. Both these films were splashy enough entertainments to warrant U.S. distribution at the time by MGM.
More specialized in appeal were the likes of Michel Drach’s 1960 debut feature One Does Not Bury Sunday, a then-daring if uneven indie interracial romance between an immigrant from Martinique (Philippe Mory) and a Swedish student (Christina Bendz) in Paris. Made the same year, Le petit soldat was Jean-Luc Godard’s intended followup to Breathless, as well as the debut appearance for his early muse Anna Karina. But it got shelved until 1963 due to government censors’ objections to the depiction of French authorities utilizing torture during the Algerian War. Somewhat similar in theme, though much more widely seen, was Alain Resnais’ fairly conventional (for him) drama 1966 The War is Over, with Yves Montand as an expat Spaniard working to overthrow Franco’s dictatorship at home while evading detection in Paris.
Other films in the series include the more straightforwardly noir-ish likes of Julien Duvivier’s The Burning Court (1962), an Agatha Christie-like murder mystery; and Lovers on a Tightrope (1960), with Annie Girardot scheming to get rid of the wealthy husband who suspects as much. Based on a true-crime story but no mainstream thriller is Les Abysses(1963), Nikos Papatakis’ hysterically pitched, fictive recap of the notorious case in which two sibling housemaids killed their mistress and her daughter—a tale of class struggle and madness that inspired many other artworks, including Jean Genet’s famous play The Maids. The French Had A Name For It 6 plays Thurs/14-Mon/14 at the Roxie Theater. More info here.
Also very French and at the Roxie is this new/old portrait of fashion legend Yves Saint-Laurent. Old because it was shot several years before his death in 2008; “new” because legal disputes kept it from being seen until recently. There’s a fairly extensive backlog of documentaries that were suppressed by the institutions or persons they portrayed, which felt the portrayal wasn’t flattering enough—from Frederick Wiseman’s debut feature Titicut Follies and the Rolling Stones’ Cocksucker Blues to recent The Queen of Versailles, whose time-share tycoon subject sued (unsuccessfully) because the filmmakers stopped filming before he’d bounced back from a serious market slump.
Celebration was withheld because Laurent’s estate feared it made the late Laurent look too dodderingly out-of-it as he prepared his final collection, while longtime business and (sometimes) private partner Pierre Berge appeared overmuch to be running the show. Indeed, that pretty much encapsulates the limited insight to be gained from this mix of color and B&W verite footage, which Olivier Meyrou shot between 1998 and 2001. There’s not much of interest here for those not already curious and knowledgable about the fashion industry. But if you are, this is like a real-life Phantom Thread, albeit minus the heterosexuality and poisoning. Opens Fri/15, Roxie Theater. More info here.
Cops Vs. Aliens: An Evening of Rock ’n’ Roll Film
One of the first US punk bands (though they somewhat resisted being categorized as one), Crime mixed retro rockabilly-esque simplicity with abrasive noise at high volume, releasing an initial single in late 1976. Though they were gone by 1982 (only to reform for a longer spell in the new millennium), they had played a major, pioneering role in the BayArea’s punk/New Wave scene.
This one-off event at the Victoria is a DVD and soundtrack release party for Jon Bastian’s 35-minute documentary San Francisco’s First and Only Rock ’n’ Roll Movie: CRIME 1978. Its footage was shot on 16mm just over four decades ago, but has seldom been seen in any form until the current, new “final edit.” Playing at the Fab Mab in ersatz police uniforms, taking themselves verrrry seriously (though not speaking very articulately) in brief interview clips, Crime makes it clear they’re the coolest thing around—or at least they certainly thought so. There’s not much synch sound in this patchwork short. Still, the views of an already prodigiously punked-out crowd, Dirk Dirksen’s snarky comments as house MC, and random promo footage combine to capture a prime moment in a then-affordable San Francisco’s cultural history.
There’s little obvious logic to the rest of the evening’s bill, though we like every individual element: In addition to the Crime film, a live musical intro by surviving band member Ron “The Ripper” Greco, and some words from the filmmakers, there will be a performance by Texas psychobilly pioneer The Legendary Stardust Cowboy. Plus a screening of D.A. Pennebaker’s 1973 concert film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, with preceding Ziggy lookalike contest. What can we say? That’s a lot of entertainment for 15 bucks. Thurs/14, Victoria Theater. More info here.
Far Out on Film at SFMOMA
As a sidebar to the gallery exhibition Far Out: Suits, Habs and Labs for Outer Space, SFMOMA is programming this series of six unique celluloid looks at the future—as imagined throughout the last half-century. Sci-fi in the 1970s got very spacey indeed with John Coney’s unclassifiable 1974 musical fantasy Space Is the Place, a vehicle for the inimitable jazz-rock visionary Sun Ra. The same year in the Soviet Union, Andrei Tarkovsky explored inner metaphysics in outer space with the original Solaris. Andrew Niccol’s 1997 Gattaca was a cool exploration of a genetically engineered society to come, with Ethan Hawke as a man whose imperfect “natural” birthright makes him ineligible for a voyage to Saturn.
Trapped in transit between worlds are the protagonists in two films from this year. Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche are among the not-entirely-willing crew on an endless interstellar trip in Claire Denis’ High Life. A much better movie, though it only played SF very briefly last March, is Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja’s Aniara, a fascinating tale in which a spacecraft thrown off-course en route to a Mars settlement sees its passengers virtually enacting the entire life cycle of a civilization in their no longer destination-bound eternal travel. It’s based on, of all things, a Swedish Nobel winner’s epic narrative poem. Last but not least comes the granddaddy of all thinky sci-fi cinema, Kubrick’s 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sat/16-Sat/Dec. 21, Phyllis Wattis Theater, SFMOMA. More info here.
On the other hand, last in this column and pretty much least overall is next week’s Alamo Drafthouse “Weird Wednesday” pick, a prank by Wonder Showzen creator and South Park producer Vernon Chatman. He wrote an absurdist script about two parents and a daughter who behave in no rational fashion whatsoever when an apparent thermonuclear disaster destroys the entire world outside their home. He then split it into four parts, and sent each to a different fetish-porn video companies for them to act out and film exactly as written.
The 2009-completed result is surrealist jape meets unconscious outsider-art mashup par excellence, as performers who (mostly) really don’t get the joke recite non sequiturs like “I’m raising money to help provide subtext for the poor” and “I refuse to say what I need! Just hurry!” In fact, when the final trio all dressed in hipster black seems to grasp this material as avant-garde theater, their knowingness makes for the dullest stretch—the worse the acting (I vote Part 3), the more hilarious the result.
Final Flesh is frequently just amateurish and infantile, with its scripted emphasis on regurgitation more overbearing than the anonymous “stars’” occasional, presumably-unscripted bouts of graphic exhibitionism. But as pranks go, this is a good one: At times its oil-and-water concept is helplessly funny. Wed/20, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.