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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: 50 years of downs and ups for...

Screen Grabs: 50 years of downs and ups for extraordinary ‘Holy Mountain’

Jodorowsky’s masterpiece once truly defined underground cinema. Plus: 'The Star Wars Holiday Special' resurrected, Taiwanese gems, more

This Monday, November 27, marks the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest films of the Sixties—Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain—though its great misfortune, perhaps, was to be released quite so far into the subsequent Me Decade. By late 1973, its visually extraordinary Castaneda-meets-Candide spiritual parable already felt like a psychedelic relic, relegating the latest by the director of the original midnight movie sensation El Topo to an extremely scattershot and underwhelming theatrical release.

Eventually legal troubles pulled it from distribution entirely for decades. (I attended a memorable would-be screening at the York Theater in the early 1990s, arriving only to find someone had tipped off the litigious current owner, so the collector’s borrowed print was being seized by SFPD.) But before that happened, it did have a few years of slowly building a cult following at repertory houses, usually billed with the more popular El Topo.

Of course, today rep houses themselves are scarce, though The Holy Mountain—which, regrettably, no one seems to be programming hereabouts on its big silver anni—can now be accessed through myriad legitimate home formats and platforms, including AppleTV. But this is one of those weeks in which the Bay Area film exhibition scene still looks pretty rich, almost like it was a decade or three ago… if you squint hard.

Between special events, revivals, retrospective series, avant-garde programs, a couple new documentaries and a dose of retro camp or two, it’s a good moment to wrest yourself from that streaming device. The survey below doesn’t even include the Silent Film Festival’s Saturday Castro event or the return of genre fest Another Hole in the Head—we’ll get to those later this week.

A Disturbance in the Force

In the endlessly marketed, tightly controlled Star Wars “universe” that has now existed for nearly half a century, there is one major product that remains insistently swept under the rug: The Star Wars Holiday Special, a two-hour CBS variety extravaganza that pre-empted Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk on the night of Nov. 18, 1978, and was never re-broadcast or otherwise officially released again. There is a reason for that—it was famously awful, and George Lucas (who preferred to ignore its very existence) would never again relinquish creative control over any spinoff from his colossally successful original film. At least not until he sold the franchise whole to equally cautious corporate minder Disney in 2012.

But such notoriety breeds curiosity, of course. So this disastrous “special”—featuring such unlikely fellow space travelers as Harvey Korman, Beatrice Arthur, Art Carney, and Jefferson Starship—has acquired its own camp cult base from bootleg copies. And now there’s a documentary about the boondoggle, playing this Mon/27 only at the Alamo Drafthouse. Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak’s film chronicles how the unprecedented pop culture phenomenon of the prior year (which had already beaten Jaws to become the new highest-grossing-film-ever) spawned a network musical comedy one-off that Lucas was too busy making The Empire Strikes Back to be heavily involved in—to his considerable regret.

As a consequence, the show wound up in a conceptual tug of war between his appointed personnel and more practiced boob-tube variety types. The latter “won,” but Star Wars lost, since the results were a nonsensically poor fit to its sci-fi fantasy mindset. Yes, there was a running thread of everyday Wookie life depicted sitcom-style, and a well-received animation sequence. But there were also things like comedian Korman as a sort of robot Julia Child, “holographic tumblers,” Bea Arthur singing a sentimental oompah song (at one point to a giant space rat), and sequin-dripping Diahann Carroll providing a sexy musical fantasy for a Wookie grandpa having a VR experience.

We don’t get enough clips from that monstrosity in Disturbance, but perhaps it’s just as well—even latterday guilty-pleasure fans of the Holiday Special heard from here, like Bobcat Goldthwait and Seth Green, admit it’s “a hard sit.” Participants like famed costume designer Bob Mackie and writer Bruce Vilanch are interviewed; we hear how the troubled production lost its original director, exhausted its budget before shooting ended, and other travails. The program only makes sense within the wild world of 1970s variety shows, whose other outer limits of dreadfulness get duly limned by excerpts from the likes of The Brady Bunch Variety Hour and The Paul Lynde Halloween SpecialA Disturbance (more info on the Alamo screening here) is fun—and probably less traumatizing than watching the real thing, which can be found pretty easily on free online sites.

Evilspeak

Starting with a quote from Kahlil Gibran, this 1981 horror film—not to be confused with the same year’s Fear No Evil, another memorably odd exercise with a similar premise—took a few assertive left turns from the era’s rote slasher knockoffs. The ever-distinctive Clint Howard plays a much-picked-on dweeb at West Andover Military Academy, disdained by both staff and fellow students. Then with the help of a computer (at a momentwhen movies all too readily presented still-novel PCs as portals to the supernatural), he summons the spirit of a Spanish monk turned Satanist from the Inquisition epoch.

The mayhem that ensues encompasses gratuitous shower-scene nudity (for both sexes!), a “Miss Heavy Artillery” beauty pageant, death by rampaging pig, the immortal line “I’m not gonna commit no sacrilege, Bubba,” and more. Eric Weston’s film isn’t necessarily “good,” but it is definitely out there, with some elements seemingly intended as satire, others not at all. The Alamo Drafthouse’s 35mm screening on Tue/28 (more info here) provides a prelude to Friday’s official opening of co-presenter Another Hole in the Head.

Taiwan Film Retrospective

Though the specialty-exhibition houses that once populated “Chinatowns” throughout North America are for the most part long gone, Lee Neighborhood Cinemas is bringing back their heyday with this two-week Presidio Theatre series of digitally restored Mandarin-language classics from Taiwan. That nation, though yet again the object of control struggles between larger political forces, has always had its own distinct film culture and industry. The nine features here span four decades, from the late 1960s to the brink of the millennium.

While some are fairly well-known abroad, like King Hu’s wuxia epics Dragon Inn (1967) and A Touch of Zen (1971), others have not been screened in the U.S. for years. Among the titles being revived in conjunction with the Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Institute are WW2-era espionage tale Storm Over the Yangtse River (1969), 1970 supernatural omnibus Four Moods, Hsing Lee’s 1972 drama Execution in Autumn, Sino-Japanese war chronicle The Everlasting Glory (1976), three-part reincarnation romance The Wheel of Life (1983), acclaimed early Hsiao-Hsien Hou feature Dust in the Wind (1986) and droll 1998 lonely-hearts seriocomedy The Personals (1998). For full schedule and other info on the series, which runs Fri-Sun. Dec. 1-3 and 8-10, go here.

Yasujiro Ozu: The Elegance of Simplicity

The first decades of Taiwan’s film culture occurred under the auspices of Japanese colonization, overlapping with the first decades in the life and career of a director considered one of that occupying nation’s greatest. Indeed, this extensive BAMPFA tribute to the late Ozu includes at least two films (1949’s Late Spring, 1952’s Tokyo Story) that are frequently ranked high in polls of the greatest films ever.

But the delicately thoughtful domestic dramas that made his international reputation were only part of the Tokyo native’s artistic range, which at least earlier on had encompassed a wide gamut of tonal and genre approaches. The series commences this Sun/3 with 1932’s I Was Born, But…, an antic childhood comedy that’s also an acid critique of the adult world. That Night’s Wife (1930) and Woman of Tokyo (1933) are short, punchy crime mellers, while Dragnet Girl from that same later year has the estimable Yoshiko Okada as the disillusioned girlfriend of a small-time gangster whom she eventually tries to reform, along with herself.

Fifteen years later, actress and director (who worked together many times) would reunite for 1948’s A Hen in the Wind, a more soap-operatic take on the familiar theme of the loyal wife who must “stray” for the sake of others, but finds they cannot forgive her wartime sacrifice. The Only Son, Ozu’s first sound feature in 1936—the Japanese industry was slow to embrace “talkies”—offers a thematically similar if more sharp-edged portrait of a woman whose selflessness goes unappreciated by the men it’s benefitted.

Making his most celebrated films in the post-war years, Ozu adopted color as of 1958’s Equinox Flower, with no loss of nuance or intimacy to his storytelling. Alas, he died of throat cancer in 1963, on his 60th birthday, cutting short a career that had had a sage-like quality for decades already. For full info on the BAMPFA series, which runs Dec. 3-Feb. 25, go here.

‘All About Eve’ and ‘Sunset Boulevard’ at the Castro

Arguably the two most enduring films of 1950 are also remembered for providing two of “golden age” Hollywood’s greatest female roles—and for the general shock when neither of their performers managed to nab the Best Actress Oscar.

All About Eve was Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s witty and complex drama of a veteran stage star whose career is “usurped” by the titular newcomer (Anne Baxter) who schemes into her confidence. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Bette Davis as diva Margo Channing, though in fact several other luminaries were considered, and Claudette Colbert actually cast before she was sidelined by an injury. Thus Davis, then at a low ebb after several flops, was signed on—and the part re-tailored to her flintier persona. (It is doubtful that she or anyone else realized the dominant screen presence of the new decade, however, would be a single-scene support player here: None other than Marilyn Monroe.) Eve was nominated for 14 Academy Awards, more than any film before it. Still, Davis didn’t win.

Nor did Gloria Swanson, who had an even more dramatic comeback with Billy Wilder’s acidic black comedy/suspense drama Sunset Boulevard. One of the biggest stars of the silent era, she had been pretty much absent from the screen for sixteen years. She wasn’t the first choice for the plum role of middle-aged onetime celluloid siren Norma Desmond, who emerges from wealthy seclusion to plot a probably-delusional return to glory, and goes mad (to the fatal grief of William Holden’s writer/gigolo figure) when that fails to materialize. But Swanson proved inspired, throwing herself into the part’s grotesque aspects.

A more modest financial success than EveBoulevard has loomed large since. Nonetheless, neither film did as much as it should have for its leading lady—Davis failed to find a follow-up vehicle to sustain her revived career momentum (at least not until Whatever Happened to Baby Jane 12 years later), while Swanson didn’t even get any offers. Both were doubtless taken aback when the Oscar was stolen from them by a newcomer: Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. Hers was a terrific comedic performance in a solid translation of a stage play, but the injustice still stings a little. This double bill plays the Castro starting at 3:30 pm on Sun/3 (more info here), with Eve shown in a 4K restoration and Boulevard on 35mm.

The Disappearance of Shere Hite

Another woman who did not quite get the respect she’d earned was the author of The Hite Report, a 1976 tome that became an enormous bestseller—somewhat unforeseen for a work of soberly researched sexology a la Kinsey and Masters & Johnson, drawn from questionnaires filled out by women nationwide. Its somewhat surprising conclusions exposed their common experiences, preferences, fantasies and dissatisfactions, the latter in particular ruffling a lot of male feathers. (Guys were angrier still when she published The Hite Report on Men and Male Sexuality five years later, revealing widespread insecurities almost no one was willing to admit to in public.)

A very glamorous figure who’d worked as a model to support her academic pursuits, Hite suffered the still-inevitable backlash accorded women who attract men yet don’t tell them what they wanted to hear. Her findings were discounted as “unscientific,” though their research standards were little different from esteemed earlier studies; she kept a cool head on talk shows, suffering the slings and arrows of wounded showbiz he-men like David Hasselhoff. She enjoyed her celebrity and flamboyant, high-style image… but not having her intellect dismissed because once (pre-fame) she’d posed for Playboy.

A bisexual feminist who fit in with “New York’s radical chic crowd” yet also held herself at a self-protective remove, she remains something of an enigma in Nicole Newnham’s documentary, despite the wealth of archival materials used. She permanently left the US for Europe 30 years before her 2020 demise, feeling stung by the cumulative whiplash of media acclamation and denunciation. But this engaging act of salvage by the Crip Camp co-director does convince that Hite played a significant role in educating and opening dialogue in the immediate wake of the “Sexual Revolution,” and as such should not be forgotten as thoroughly as she has been. Disappearance opens at the Opera Plaza Cinemas this Fri/1.

Esoteric Evenings: Andrew Norman Wilson, Lost Landscapes

Two upcoming programs in SF provide a chance to re-orient with one’s surroundings in both a cosmic and more prosaic sense. SF Cinematheque’s Sun/3 presentation of Doom Loops: An Evening with Andrew Norman Wilson at Gray Area provides a mind-bending sampler of works by one of the most unpinnable video avant-gardists of the last decade.

Playing with found footage, computer animation and various other technologies, his shorts each feature their own distinct conceptual gambit, with dynamic if also frequently schlocky retro soundtrack music choices. In the Air Tonight fabulates a bizarre long anecdote about Phil Collins, to ends that ultimately outrun pop irony; Z = |Z/Z•Z-1 mod 2|-1: The Old Victrola offers a long series of zoom shots onto a high-rise apartment balcony, where something newly strange is found each time. There will be much more, including a live performance element. More info here.

If Norman’s sensibility seems very forward-leaning—even when he’s acknowledging cheese of the past—you can always wallow comfortably in nostalgia with the ongoing Lost Landscapes series. Its 18th edition, playing this coming Mon/4-Tues/5 at SF’s Herbst Theatre, is subtitled City and Bay in Motion: Transportation and Communication.

We’re promised the usual treasure trove of home movies, advertising and industrial content, and whatnot, this time focusing on means of mobility and expression in the Bay Area since the dawn of the film medium. It’s drawn from over three thousand vintage titles scanned over the last year alone by (principally) the Prelinger Archives. Audience participation is encouraged—if you can identify that long-forgotten person, place, or thing onscreen, shout it out. More info here.

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