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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Hail international film, including African, Palestinian rarities

Screen Grabs: Hail international film, including African, Palestinian rarities

Plus: Homage to Italian soundtrack champ Ennio Morricone and Edward Yang's 'Taipei Stories'.

A number of variably long film series, retrospectives and festivals launching this week circumnavigate the globe—well, at least the continental parts of it. (The International Ocean Film Festival won’t dock here until mid-April.) The terrain encompassed sprawls from Taipei to Italia, through a roster of currently or formerly occupied lands, plus a stint in the collective bedroom … where there will not be much sleeping.

One talent whose work crossed numerous national boundaries is the subject of a tribute schedule at the 4-Star in SF this Fri/1 through March 14. “A Fistful of Music” pays homage to the incredible career of Ennio Morricone, a native of Rome who died there in 2020 at age 91. He was so prolific a composer of original film scores (over 400, excluding another hundred or so titles that recycled or excerpted older material) that some skeptical and/or jealous observers wondered whether he really did it all himself—or if, like some best-selling pulp novelists, he had unacknowledged support staff doing most of the labor. But Morricone was a unicorn, a compulsively inventive workaholic whose output and range seemed equally boundless.

The centerpiece of the 4-Star series, playing throughout, is the newish documentary Ennio, made by its subject’s frequent collaborator Giuseppe Tornatore (of Cinema Paradiso fame). A hefty 156 minutes long, it can still barely begin to convey the breadth of an extraordinary professional run. It tracks Morricone’s trajectory beginning with his participation in jazz bands (his father was also a trumpet player), veering into conservatory studies, then to arranging song for Italian variety TV shows and pop stars, before he was asked to compose his first feature soundtrack in 1961.

While those latter pursuits were looked down upon by the classical establishment—despite his also composing about one hundred concert pieces in that idiom—he greatly expanded the field of “movie music” by incorporating elements from the 20th century avant-garde. Such as dissonance, improvisation, found sounds, folk influences, and instrumentation from around the world, et al.

Even if you limit your purview to the most famous phases of his screen odyssey, the diversity of approach is extraordinary. He first leapt to unprecedented popularity via deathlessly cool scores devised for “spaghetti Westerns” by Sergio Leone and others, with their distinctive mixes of guitar, orchestra, wordless vocals, and whistling. Another new director, Dario Argento, pulled him into the realm of bloody and perverse giallo thrillers, his invention again helping define an emergent genre. Then there are the sumptuous themes he developed for epics like Sacco & Vanzetti1900 (not to be confused with The Legend of 1900, which he also scored), The Mission, and Once Upon a Time in America—music that in some cases remains more highly esteemed than the films themselves. Inevitably Hollywood came calling, even though he refused to learn English.

Shot before his demise, the documentary naturally shows Morricone on his best behavior, still driven and vigorous (we see him doing exercises on the floor). Still, the sometimes abrupt, dismissive way he discusses some professional interludes reveal a personality that demanded its own terms—and got them. (Rather than bending to directors’ wills, he seems to have frequently bent them to his will.)

Among those interviewed are collaborators (Bertolucci, Roland Joffe, Argento, Clint Eastwood etc.), fellow film composers (including Quincy Jones and Hans Zimmer), musicians he inspired (Springsteen, Pat Methany), and many more. If we never get much insight into why Lina Wertmuller might call him “A very peculiar man…crazy,” that judgment nonetheless seems credible enough as one extreme view on a complicated character.

Indeed, one complicated enough to have worked not only with the aforementioned, but also Pasolini, Bellocchio, the Taviani brothers, Liniana Cavani, Lucio Fulci, Polanski, De Palma, Zeffirelli, John Boorman, Friedkin, Oliver Stone, Tinto Brass, and on and on. Ennio succumbs to hyperbole towards the end, when (among other hosannahs) one admirer suggests Morricone’s music proves there must be a God. A bit over-the-top…but still, you can understand where such sentiments come from.

Along with the documentary, the 4-Star is showing a selection of movies with scores by you-know-who. There’s Cinema Paradiso, Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” and Once Upon a Time in the West, Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven (which got the composer his first Oscar nomination in 1978), Almodovar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, John Carpenter’s sci-fi remake The Thing, two great early Argento giallos (Four Flies on Grey VelvetThe Bird With the Crystal Plumage), and two more from #1 fanboy Tarantino (Django UnchainedThe Hateful 8)—all well-known movies.

Offering a little catnip for the obscurantist is 1979’s The Humanoid, a shameless Italian Star Wars ripoff starring Richard Kiel (007 nemesis “Jaws”) in a double role as bearded nice guy and Frankensteinian robo-monster. It’s cheesy trash, not quite inept or nutty enough to be camp gold…but it does provide a glimpse at the vast body of less-than-memorable films on which Morricone also labored. If the mix of electronic and orchestral sounds here isn’t terribly memorable, it nonetheless further underlines the expansiveness of his composing range. For info on the 4-Star’s entire “Fistful” series, go here.

This week, BAMPFA is commencing no less than three major series that focus on cinema of Taiwan, Senegal, and other African nations from the perspectives of both their erstwhile European colonizers and the formerly colonized. The first two are tributes to specific filmmakers. “Edward Yang’s Taipei Stories” (running through April 20) assembles all the major works, many newly restored, by the late director who was a principal figure in the 1980s Taiwanese New Wave, bringing international attention to a local scene that had hitherto grown derivative and moribund.

Beginning this Fri/1 with his 1983 debut feature That Day, on the Beach (also an early work for fabled cinematographer Christopher Doyle), the seven titles being shown demonstrate the mix of neorealism, pop, and more rarefied arthouse tastes—Antonioni was a major influence—that marked Yang as a notable stylist as well as social commentator. All set in Taipei, they reveal a society’s growing pains in personal dramas at once intimate and sprawling.

1991’s A Brighter Summer Day offered four hours of teenage unrest as a metaphor for Taiwan’s tense political environment in the late ’50s and early ’60s. His last and perhaps still best-known film, the nearly three-hour 2000 Yi Yi, was a multigenerational middle-class family saga. Its melodrama likewise comes wrapped in a firm directorial control that eschews outward flamboyance, yet holds the viewer in its empathetic grip. While Yang had plenty of further projects planned, they were ultimately sacrificed to a long, losing struggle with cancer that ended when he was just 59. Info on the full BAMPFA series is here.

At least as important a figure in his own national—even an entire continent’s—film history is the figure celebrated by “Sembene 100,” which celebrates the birth centenary of the “Father of African Cinema.” Like Yang, novelist turned director Ousmane Sembene also died in 2007 (albeit in his mid-80s), and was much influenced by formative years spent abroad, Yang in the United States, Sembene in France. In his early decades, Senegal existed under foreign rule as part of French West Africa. That government basically forbade Native peoples from making movies, among many other restrictions.

Taking up writing to “give a voice to the voiceless,” Sembene pioneered local film production after independence was won, including what is often considered the first true African feature—1966’s B&W Black Girl, a biting fictive microcosm of racial exploitation and rebellion. Never shying from controversy, the writer-director saw his work sometimes banned by the French for its critique of colonialism. It was also banned on occasion on home turf, when he proved equally willing to skewer the corrupt politics and outdated customs of his own and neighboring countries. His final film Moolaade (2004) took on systemic misogyny in the horrific tradition of female genital mutilation.

Kicking off the series (which runs through April 21) on Sun/3, with a repeat March 22, is Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman’s 2015 documentary Sembene! Its career overview reveals him—largely in archival interview footage—as a towering figure, enormously influential but also imperious and temperamental. As a personality, he left a legacy of mixed feelings amongst family members and colleagues alike. But far more lasting is the importance of films like XalaCeddoGuelwaar and Mandabi, whose sharp indictments—whether primarily dramatic or comic—still sting, despite (or perhaps because of) their usual surface of even-toned social realism. Full info on “Sembene 100” is here.

The subject that largely concerned that filmmaker is the entire focus of “Tell No Lies: Decolonizing Cinema in Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique,” a concurrent BAMPFA series gathering filmic responses to other African nations’ long stints under European control. Many of the older titles here have been very seldom seen in the United States, or not for decades.

They include Mario Marrett’s 35-minute 1966 Nossa terra, a recently rediscovered “lost” film shot during Guinea-Bissau’s independence struggle; about the same country, nonfiction shorts Madina Boe (1969) and The Return of Amilcar Cabral (1976); Ray Guerra’s 1979 Mueda: Memory and Massacre, Mozambique’s first feature; and Sarah Maldoror’s 1972 Sambizanga, one of the first features directed by a woman on the African continent. It’s a simple, powerful narrative about an Angolan construction worker whose covert political activism results in brutal retribution from Portuguese colonialist authorities.

Newer films encompass Susana de Sousa Dias’ 2009 48, a haunting record of those arrested by the same authorities in various colonies and in Portugal itself, during its long military dictatorship; Lisa Hagstrand’s 2003 Kuxa Kanema: The Birth of Cinema, which examines rare historic newsreel footage found in the ruins of Mozambique’s short-lived National Institute of Cinema; several films by Filipa Cesar, a Guinea-Bissau artist-activist who’ll be present for their late-April screenings; and Pedro Costa’s 2019 feature Vitalina Varela, a painterly minimalist drama about a Cape Verdean woman’s journey to Lisbon’s impoverished Fontainhas shantytown for the funeral of the husband who abandoned her forty years before. Info on the entire “Tell No Lies” series, which plays this Sat/2 through April 24, is here.

As previously mentioned in this space, Oakland’s New Parkway on Sat/2-Sun/3 will be hosting Palestinian Voices, a melange of arts and storytelling—much of it in live performance—that includes several films originally scheduled to be shown last November at the postponed Arab Film Festival. The latter comprise three features: Lina Soualem’s acclaimed documentary Bye Bye Tiberias, Muayad Alayan’s supernatural tale A House in Jerusalem, and Yousef Srouji’s Three Promises, in which the filmmaker reviews the footage his mother shot while under siege in the West Bank in the early 2000s. Info on the weekend’s full schedule of events is here.

Last but not least—unless you’re feeling prudish and guilty after all the heavy political cinema—is the return of the annual HUMP! Film Festival to SF’s Victoria Theater. (Actually, we’re told this year it will be biannual, with another edition expected in the fall.) On the verge of its 20th anniversary, 2024’s current program encompasses two dozen “brand-spanking-new” films…only some of them actual spanking films, I assume. They will run a gamut of kinks, preferences and genres, belying the event’s original billing as a showcase for “the world’s best amateur porn” with some serious (if also sometimes comedic) artistic aspirations. But entrance is still strictly 21-and-over. HUMP! founder Dan Savage himself will host the second weekend’s shows. The festival’s SF tour stop runs February 29-March 9, Thursday through Saturday evenings. For the full schedule, go here.

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