The Ecphorizer

Notes on the San Francisco Film Festival
Paul Healy

issue #04 (December 1981)

A dedicated cineaste reviews this year's offerings

"...I would say that within the last 25 or 30 years the great works have been films and that the amount of talent and genius that goes into the making of a film is incomparably greater than what has been going into any

Films you might otherwise never see, except maybe on Public Television...

other art form, and I an absolutely certain of that." -- Lord Kenneth Clark, on MEET THE PRESS, 15 November 1970.

After an eight year interval, Abel Gance's NAPOLEON* returns again to the Bay Area. Its San Francisco premiere in 1973 at the Avenue Theater, with organ accompaniment arranged and played by Harry Vaughn, revealed the true greatness of Gance and his masterly use of the triple (Cinerama-type) screen. Now it is back in a 4-1/2 hour version (six tours in England, shown on two successive evenings - the difference in time is accounted for in large part by the fact that the English version is projected at the correct 20 frames/second, while the American is shown at the standard speed of 24 fps) with an excellent score by Carmine Coppola, whose son, Francis Ford Coppola, is responsible for its road show tour. The English score, not yet available in this country, is by Colin Davis.

[quoteright]In the final sequence of the film (the only part where the triple screen is used) Gance uses the resources of his three cameras more imaginatively than any director has since; for in addition to spreading a sweeping panorama across all three screens, be often places related, but contrasting, images on them - a huge close-up of Napoleon's face on the center screen, while his troops march in toward him on either side screen, the right hand screen being a mirror image of the left. The film is tinted in many parts, generally with great effectiveness; sometimes the three screens at the finale are tinted in three different colors! Gance envisions Napoleon as the true superhero; beside him Superman locks like a sissy. Look for many of the caamera tricks we take for granted today in this film, and reflect that it was made in 1927. It will be shown again in the Paramount Theater in Oakland on the 3rd thru the 6th of December, and again at the Opera House on 6-10 January 1982. $15 will buy a first class seat at the Paramount; if you must, cut back to dried beans and salt pork for a day or two -- but see it. It will thrill and excite you as no other film can (including RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK).

As chairman of the Contra Costa (Fine Arts) Jury of the Film Festival's 16mm competition I viewed some 21 films; unfortunately (in some cases), these films will not be available for viewing by the general public, unless they are picked up by public television. Winner of the Golden Gate Award (Gold Medal - actually a miniature obelisk) was the fine Australian documentary, PUBLIC ENEMY NO. 1. It covered most of the adult life of the freelance journalist Wilfred Burchett, who covered the Korean and Vietnam conflicts from the "wrong" side -- an action which caused the Australian government to refuse to reissue him a passport for 17 years, after his was stolen. In accepting the award, Brian Brown (star of BREAKER MORANT and TV's A TOWN LIKE ALICE) praised San Francisco's press, and the Film Festival, but damned American Public Television for refusing to show the film (too little public interest -- they said!). It is a splendid film, with some very unusual and remarkable footage of North Vietnam, Korea, and Cambodia

Winner of the Bronze medal in the overall competition, and also Best of the Fine Arts Category, was Amalie Rothschild's CONVERSATIONS WITH WILLARD VAN DYKE (THE RIVER, THE CITY, THE PHOTOGRAPHER, STEELTOWN). She has managed just the proper mixture between Van Dyke's conversations with Ralph Steiner and Joris Ivens (the brilliant Dutch director of documentaries) and excerpts from Van Dyke's films. Even the travelogues he made for Lowell Thomas are humorously and entertainingly handled. The film will he eligible for an Academy Award, and richly deserves it.

The six morning programs of retrospectives of the Australian cinema gave a new insight into the early days of filming down under. The standout programs were FORTY THOUSAND HORSEMEN (the Australians in the Arabian desert in World War I, where they fared rather better than those at Gallipoli) and the 1954 Shell documentary, BACK OF BEYOND surely one of the first showings in the United States of a 35mm print of this beautiful and moving film. It simply describes the journey of Ton Kruse from Marree to Birdsville, carrying the mail and assorted freight shipments. I was as moved by it today as I was when I saw it 25 years ago -- its charm and power are as great as ever. Last film in the series was the animated feature, (GRENDEL GRENDEL GRENDEL, with the voice of Peter Ustinov for Grendel, portrayed here as an almost lovable monster -- one feels quite sorry when Beowulf tears off his arm. The film is done in one of the most modern cartoon styles; you can find similar ones in Heavy Metal (magazine or cinema).

An outstanding French film was LES UNS ET LES AUTRES (THE INS AND THE OUTS) directed by Claude Lalouch, who was present for the showing. The three hours it runs pass very quickly. The story traces four families in France, Germany, Russia and America from the 30s to the present. The story is told mainly through music, but the film cannot be classed as a musical. James Caan and Geraldine Chaplin are the Americans; the "big band" sound is there, and the ballet sequences are marvelously staged. If it is shown again locally, it should not be missed.

A film almost certain to have wide American shoving is Andrzej Zulawski's POSSESSION (France/West Germany). It was, by all odds, one of the bloodiest and most sickening films I have seen in some time -- more so than THE SHINING. The monster who makes love to the young wife seems to be pert lizard end part octopus, except that when he is finished he has the precise likeness -- and body -- of her husband. The film features six very bloody murders; the audience hissed afterward, something quite unusual for this Film Festival.

PRIEST OF LOVE is the adult life of D. H. Lawrence, focusing on his relationship with his second wife, Frieda, and his long battles with the censors (how very mild Lady Chatterly's Lover seems today). A sad comment on the famed San Francisco culture and sophistication was made by the film's star, Ian McKellen, who remarked that at a press interview this was the first question he was asked: "Was the period of the film before, or after, Lawrence want to Arabia?" I suppose the reporter might have followed this with a question as to why The Seven Pillars of Wisdom was never mentioned! This piece of stupidity was surpassed at the afternoon tribute to Jiri Menzel, whose CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS had been shown (complete) before he came on stage. A member of the audience asked: Mr. Menzel, is your film a pro-war or an anti-war film? Menzel's translated reply: If you have to ask that question I failed badly as a director." Equally insensitive were questions directed to him asking for criticism of the current Czech government, which director Johnson wisely refused to have Menzel answer -- after all, he does plan to return to his homeland! It was not a red letter day for San Francisco.

The two films of David Gladwell, REQUIEM FOR A VILLAGE and MEMOIRS OF A SURVIVOR (from the book by Doris Lessing), ware both wall done, in beautiful color -- although, like Flaherty, he created a contrast between the rural village life and bulldozers making way for high rise apartments that was not realistic. The scenes of village life were those common in Queen Victoria's time, not today. A fine and moving film, nevertheless.

Although a number of the films shown at the Festival are now shawing in the Bay Area (notably RAGGEDY MAN, THE BOAT IS FULL, PRIEST OF LOVE, and PIXOTE), many more fine films will not be seen again in this area for years and some will never surface in the United States. Some, like POSSESSION and LA MACCHINA CINEMA, are better buried in oblivion, but many others, like the two Gladwell films mentioned above, richly deserve a wider showing, but are unlikely to get it -- unless perhaps on Public Television.

* Though not shown at the Palace of Fine Arts or the Castro, this film rates as part of the San Francisco Film Festival because they sold a special block of tickets for a performance at the Opera House at $50 and $75 each -- including a party afterward. [Ed. Note: And remember that those were 1981 prices. -Tod, Feb 2006]  

Paul Healy is a retired mathematician, belongs to several international film societies, and has contributed numerous articles to film journals. In addition, he owns an orrery. Film Festivals in San Francisco A Google search on "san francisco film festival" didn't turn up that per se, but you'd be surprised at how many special-interest film festivals are held in and around San Francisco (in Google's order): Jewish Arab Silent Gay and Lesbian Indie Black Latino Asian Sex Worker Ocean Asian-American Bicycle Low Budget Women's SF Station (a comprehensive guide to goings-on in San Francisco) has a film festival section here.

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