For a very long time the Bay Area in general and San Francisco in particular were considered among the best arthouse film markets in the country, perhaps second only to Manhattan. But these days an increasing number of non-mainstream films skip the area entirely, because there are so few available venues left. COVID expedited the closures, of course, but they’d been happening for years beforehand. Sure, there’s always home viewing. Yet even brief theatrical openings are how many people find out a movie exists, whether they decide to see it then or wait for streaming access.
The sort of thing we’re largely missing out on as a result is showcased in a BAMPFA series starting this Thu/2, and running through November 29. Rialto Pictures Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Salute provides a tribute to the NYC-based company, founded by programmer/publicist/filmmaker Bruce Goldstein, that’s been called “the gold standard of reissue distributors.” They have re-released classics by Chris Marker, Joseph Losey, Godard, Jean-Pierre Melville, John Schlesinger, Hitchcock, Cocteau, De Sica, Tavernier, Claude Sautet, Clouzot, Renoir, Bunuel, Bresson, Diane Kurys,Carol Reed, Renais, Lattuada, Roeg, Fellini, Antonioni, Michael Powell, Monicelli, Kurosawa, Rivette, Welles, Jacques Becker… well, many of the world-cinema greats, if with an emphasis on European (esp. French) classics.
But they’ve also made some eccentric detours, such as a slew of UK Ealing comedies and ’80s Hollywood testosterone-fests (including all three original Rambos). They’ve reissued popular hits (Carnal Knowledge, The Graduate, The Lion in Winter), enhanced versions of major releases (“final cuts” of Apocalypse Now and The Doors), guilty major-studio pleasures (Angel Heart, Basic Instinct), cult favorites (Diva, The Wicker Man, Winter Kills), inspired schlock (Evil Dead 2, The Manitou), and some enjoyable trash (Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde).
The up-market end of the expansive Rialto catalog is what’s on tap in BAMPFA’s retrospective. The series kicks off with two prime Godards from his supposed mid-’60s “commercial” period: 1953’s starry poison pen letter to the industry itself, Contempt, which manages to get a real performance from Brigitte Bardot; and (on Sat/8) 1965’s sci-fi noir maze Alphaville, with Eddie Constantine and Anna Karina. The remainder of the schedule encompasses two of Gallic thriller specialist Jean-Pierre Melville’s most ambitious works, French Resistance tale Army of Shadows (1969) and the next year’s criminal intrigue Le cercle rouge. There are early breakthroughs for Fellini (The White Sheik) and Carol Reed (The Third Man), plus Kurosawa’s late-period epic Ran.
Less familiar to cineastes, perhaps, will be Amir Nederi’s 1984 Iranian neo-realist snapshot of street life, The Runner. Ditto Dino Risi’s 1961 Una vita difficile, in which left-wing activist Alberto Sordi and long-suffering wife Lea Massari weather the storms of postwar Italian politics—seldom tasting la dolce vita. Most of these features will play more than once during the program’s span; for full info, go here.
Also underlining the fragile state of distribution opportunities for films that are off the beaten track is an unrelated reissue, Drylongso. Though it had a successful festival run, Cauleen Smith’s 1998 sole feature—made when she was still in an MFA program at UCLA—was barely seen beyond that sphere. The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray Special Edition, out Tue/29, will probably represent most viewers’ introduction to this prescient and distinctive slice of personal cinema, shot on 16mm in West Oakland.
It is there that young Pica (Toby Smith), an art student stuck living (and paying rent) in her mother’s non-stop party house, meets Tobi (April Barnett) when the latter is dragged from her own car by an abusive boyfriend, who then drives off with it. The two women have different backgrounds—Pica has always had to fend for herself, while Tobi is comfortably supported by a well-known musician mother who’s usually on tour. Yet they click, even if Pica is bemused by Tobi’s decision to dress and “pass” (none too convincingly) as a boy in order to avoid more harassment from the male species.
Her primary chosen medium being photography, Pica has made a project of snapping Polaroids of Black men—because, she says, they’re “an endangered species.” Beyond the hazards of criminal and police violence, the area is currently being terrorized by a serial killer dubbed the “West Side Slasher,” who’s targeted both male and female teens. Nonetheless, for all the challenges in her life (which include fending off that attacker), Pica refuses to hide, or despair. And Drylongso declines to paint West Oakland in the usual movie terms as some gang-riddled ‘hood hellscape. It portrays a community, one that’s got problems but is also supportive, creative, and eager to come together for expressions of selfhood like Pica’s climactic multimedia exhibition.
Co-written by cast member Salim Akil (who’s since worked mostly in the television industry), Smith’s film reflects her own multimedia focus—she’s been affiliated with Afrofuturism in a wide range of projects over the last quarter-century, in addition to an academic career. Drylongso is not much concerned with suspense, despite the serial-killer subplot, and its variably professional actors make for some awkward moments. But as a sort of mosaic, loosely narrative-driven but digressive and observant, it feels like an invaluable, hand-sculpted take on a particular time and place.