Pacific Film Archive's "A Theater Near You"

Max Goldberg August 31, 2006

Every cineaste knows the situation: that one-night stand that, for whatever infuriating reason, proves impossible to make. The frustration is especially common among us East Bay film freaks; with so many choice movies only playing in San Francisco’s rep houses, we’re left to sort out traffic, BART schedules, and the rest with intermittent success. Second chances are hard to come by in the cutthroat world of big screen distribution/exhibition, but Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive is offering up a full plate’s worth with this autumn’s “A Theater Near You” series. The PFA has hosted such runs before — showcasing recent independent work and restorations that disappeared from theaters after a day or, at most, a week — but this incarnation is the most varied yet with classics, modern horror, Chinese art films, and Chris Marker’s latest all packed into seven programs.

The series kicks off with a pair of double-features boasting some of the most daringly original filmmaking ever produced in genteel Tinseltown. Both nights (September 1-2) feature a new print of David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” and, indeed, that picture’s nightmare take on Anytown, USA, is a piercing attack on wholesomeness and sentiment — qualities which Hollywood has always held dear. Though there’s been no shortage of ironic reappraisals of all things Americana in the 20 years since “Blue Velvet” was first released, watching the film’s young, untested protagonist tread into night, psychosis, and Isabella Rossellini remains a compelling, unnerving cinematic experience.

Isabella Rossellini is, of course, Ingrid Bergman’s daughter and that’s one way to connect the pairing of “Blue Velvet” with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious” (September 2): the other is that both pictures feature gripping suspense topped with unmooring romance. “Notorious” may well be Hitchcock’s tightest ship (Truffaut thought so), made a few years before he launched off for Technicolor labyrinths like “Rear Window” and “Vertigo.” The plot is familiar spy stuff — Cary Grant is an intelligence agent; Ingrid Bergman is the daughter of a Nazi who’s become an American spy, in love with Grant, but forced to marry a Nazi (played by Claude Rains, naturally) for a ruse — but the suspense is in the subtext. Romance, deception, responsibility, and guilt set every scene spinning; love and death have never been closer in American cinema.

If it’s subversion you’re after, Nicholas Ray’s “Bigger Than Life” (September 1) will come as a revelation. Ray has long been considered one of Hollywood’s truest auteurs, but “Bigger Than Life” remains criminally under-seen despite a major performance by James Mason and cyanide-laced melodrama rivaling Douglas Sirk’s finest work. Mason plays an upstanding schoolteacher suffering terribly from arthritis. He begins to take cortisone for relief but becomes addicted to the drug and increasingly vulnerable to the devastating mood-swings that come with taking it. The premise is silly, but the implications — regarding the crushing dysfunctionality of a society driven by conformity — are shockingly serious. Anyone who thinks of the ’50s as a decade of complacency will be startled by Ray’s vision; 30 years before “Blue Velvet,” there was “Bigger Than Life.”

It’s probably impossible to top that first weekend of cinematic giants, but “A Theater Near You” doesn’t let up much in the following weeks. September 8th brings restored prints of “The Fallen Idol” and “The Third Man,” both directed by Carol Reed and written by celebrated novelist Graham Greene. With an impressive cast (Joseph Cotton, Orson Welles) and richly shadowed cinematography, “The Third Man” has always been a favorite of noir fans, but “The Fallen Idol” had largely been forgotten until a restoration print toured rep houses last year. Although both films may be a bit, er, English for American tastes, they are cynical and taut enough to have aged well.

Things get more adventurous in October starting with the East Bay premiere of Stuart Cooper’s “Overlord” (October 13-14), an unusual take on the WWII combat film which depends as much on actual newsreel footage as it does fictional narrative. Despite being without subtitles (the film was an English production with cinematography by John Alcott, the man who shot Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon”) and winning the Silver Bear at the 1975 Berlin Film Festival, “Overlord” is only making it to American theatres now — yet another testament to the necessity of committed repertory programming.

Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait so long for Chris Marker’s on-topic work, “The Case of the Grinning Cat” (October 27-28). Marker is in his 80s now, but he remains unquestionably relevant. In “The Case of the Grinning Cat,” he simultaneously explores the French reaction to the Bush war machine and the proliferation of graffiti depicting, you guessed it, grinning cats all over Paris. The director works in a genre — the film-essay — that’s never really caught hold, but Marker’s never been one for following the crowd, and “The Case of the Grinning Cat” shows him at his anachronistic best. The film is paired with two recent, challenging works concerning China’s ongoing cultural revolution: Yan Ting Yuen’s “Yan Ban Xi: The Eight Model Works” (October 27) and Jia Zhangke’s “The World” (October 28). “A Theatre Near You” ends gruesomely, with a Halloween teaser courtesy of director Graeme Whifler called “Neighborhood Watch.” This critic remains in the dark on this gross-out explosion, but if the PFA’s cheerful notes are any indication (“Voted Most Effectively Offensive at the Boston Underground Film Festival!”) it should be quite a night.

Repertory programming’s long tradition of eclecticism and fervor is, perhaps, the fundamental reason for film’s being taken seriously a mere hundred years after its advent. For as long as rep houses have provided the fuel, film devotees have always had a hunger to see it all, to experience work of different styles and cultures on the same big screen — in short, to see “Bigger Than Life” and “Blue Velvet” and the follow it up with “The Case of the Grinning Cat” and “The World.” The PFA’s principle public work continues to be its retrospectives of filmmakers and film movements, but there’s a particular kind of pleasure that goes along with the scattershot quality of the “A Theatre Near You” series: the pleasure of cinephilia.