Supposedly we're all in vacation mode in the summer, and in the mood for escape. At least that's the thinking that drives Hollywood to stuff multiplexes with loud, stupid CGI fantasies during the out-of-school months. But what about those of us who aren't 15, and love ducking out of the baking sun into a nice cool theater (a pleasure generally unavailable to San Franciscans, admittedly, but not to every other Bay Area denizen)? Maybe we don't want to shut our brains off at the movies, or apply our fertile imaginations to rehashed superhero crime sagas. Here are five choices that combine pleasure with measurable brain-wave activity.
The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins
1. Les Blank loves people, music and food, pretty much in that order. The soft-spoken East Bay documentary maker has amassed a deep and enviable body of work, from The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins (1968) to Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers (1980) to The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists (1994) and beyond, that has a consistent dual focus: the subject's art, environment and personality and the viewer's enjoyment. Blank is a throwback in an era when many doc makers are self-promoters (Morgan Spurlock) and/or directors of TV commercials (Errol Morris). The savory Pacific Film Archive retrospective Always for Pleasure: The Films of Les Blank runs July 8 through August 30, 2012. (Check the schedule for shows that include olfactory and auditory treats such as meals and talks. For more information visit bampfa.berkeley.edu.
The Turin Horse
2. I was at Krzysztof Kieslowski's laidback press conference in 1993, following the screening of Blue for journalists covering the New York Film Festival, when he casually declared he would be retiring from filmmaking after he completed his "Three Colors" trilogy. "I have too many books to read and cigarettes to smoke," the Polish director said with a wry smile. It was widely presumed he was joking since he was in his early 50s, and in fact he subsequently recanted to the extent that he began writing another trilogy with collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz. But suddenly and tragically, Kieslowski died in early 1996 after bypass surgery.
I am reminded of that tragedy, and the Kieslowski films we were deprived of, by Béla Tarr's recent declaration. The dour, brilliant Hungarian, who turns 57 this month, announced that his 2011 film, The Turin Horse, would be his last. I can't think of a better place to commiserate about this news than the Roxie, which played his seven-and-a-half-hour 1994 masterwork, Satantango, back in the day. Au Revoir Bela Tarr, July 7-11, 2012, pairs The Turin Horse with Tarr's previous film, The Man From London. It's damn lucky there are good drinking spots a few steps from the theater; you don't want to be in the sun, or even outdoors at night, after spending a lot of time inside Tarr's head. For more information visit roxie.com.
3. Some might say the programming of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, comprising an array of vintage dramas and comedies from Hollywood and abroad (augmented by the occasional documentary and shorts program), has more to do with entertainment than art (and thus contradicts my tagline above). These movies were made for broad, mainstream audiences, their argument goes, not consumers or connoisseurs of technique, beauty and nuance. Fine with me if you have a good time at the festival; these films were intended to move and amuse moviegoers, and the good ones should still work on us all these decades later. The festival opens Thursday, July 12, 2012 with William Wellman's high-flying epic Wings (1927) starring the immortal Clara Bow, who also appears the next night in Victor Fleming's knowing adult comedy Mantrap (1926). (Former S.F. Examiner critic Michael Sragow, who published an excellent biography of the director in 2008, introduces the restored print.) There's truly something for everyone at this all-ages festival. For more information visit prod3.agileticketing.net.
For a silent treat of a different vintage and vibe, Film Night in the Park presents the Oscar-winning The Artist outside in Union Square in a Bastille Day tribute. A beret will ward off the evening chill nicely. For more information visit filmnight.org.
4. A New Yorker through and through, writer-director Todd Solondz started out as a nebbish Woody Allen knockoff (casting himself as the lead in his movie) -- with a darker streak. He found himself, and his voice, by delineating people profoundly uncomfortable in their own skins (and leaving the acting to actors). Solondz's black comedies-slash-unflinching morality plays, notably Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness and Life During Wartime, suggest to those who see them -- but don't examine them -- a misanthrope who enjoys inflicting pain on his characters, and enjoys making us watch. On the contrary, the acuteness of the suffering on display reflects the depth of Solondz's sensitivity and compassion. His latest, Dark Horse, describes the awkward, unlikely and troubling relationship between an immature man and woman in their 30s.
Dark Horse opens July 20, 2012 around the Bay Area. Todd Solondz appears in person at a pre-opening screening Thursday, July 19 at the SFFS Cinema and Friday night at the San Francisco shows (at a Landmark theater to be determined), Saturday night, July 21 at the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley and Sunday night, July 22 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. For more information visit landmarktheatres.com.
Tahrir: Liberation Square
5. The redoubtable French public broadcaster, ARTE, has compiled an extensive, expansive web site The Arab World in Revolution(s) that will come as a revelation to anyone who gets their international news in simplistic snippets from U.S. media. It's an excellent complement to Stefano Savona's from-the-streets documentary, Tahrir: Liberation Square (2011), screening Thursday, July 26 and Saturday, July 28, 2012 at Yerba Buena Center For the Arts in a co-presentation with the Arab Film Festival. The frenetic film captures two crucial weeks in recent Egyptian history, though I use the word "recent" advisedly: In the contemporary Middle East, "history" happens on a daily basis. For more information visit ybca.org.