Aldo Fabrizi

Today Aldo Fabrizi would turn 110. Outside of Italy, those who know him at all probably know him from Rome, Open City, one of the early movies of the Neorealismo genre. (It is available in the US in a Criterion edition.)

But, in Italy, Fabrizi is famous for being one of the giants of the first generation of Italian-style comedy, from the 1950s and 1960s. My favorite movies of his are those in which he acts as a straight man for Totò, and my absolute favorite is Guardie e Ladri, which never had an American release.

For those who understand Italian, it’s possible to find the whole movie on youtube. Here is one iconic scene.

If You Are Going To San Francisco…

The 2009 Theory of Cryptography Conference starts next weekend in San Francisco.

The Center for Asian-America Media has kindly arranged for the 2009 San Francisco Asian Film Festival to coincide with the conference.

Most of the movies are playing at the Kabuki theater, which is about a mile away from the conference hotel. The Kabuki is part of a Japanese mall which is worth a visit (and a dinner) anyways. Across the street, there is Dosa, an oddly located South-Indian restaurant which is also very much worth a visit. If you are coming earlier, on Friday night you should head to the Castro Theater (a great San Francisco landmark) for Serpent’s Path, a Japanese comedy-gangster mix about a mathematician who kidnaps a yakuza. On a more serious note, there is 24 City, playing on Sunday, the new Jia Zhangke movie about change in China. (I thought Still Life was exasperating, but I’ll give him another chance.)

Other than eating and going to film festivals, there is plenty more to do in San Francisco.

For example the new, rather dramatic, California Academy of Science Museum is open to the public. It’s best to buy tickets in advance. Across the street, the De Young Museum is in another rather beautiful new building in a city that otherwise has nearly no notable contemporary architecture. (The third exception is the new Federal Building.)

Check out SF Station for nightlife information, Yelp for reviews of restaurants and bars, and 511 for public transit information. (You can also call 511 from your phone.)

The stretch of Polk street just South of the conference hotel has several popular bars, such as the Hemlock.


I eventually found my way through the intimidatingly large program of the San Francisco International Film Festival, and to the festival itself.

The movie I most enjoyed was Sleep Dealer. It is set in a near-future where the kind of low-paying jobs now often held by immigrants from developing countries (driving taxis, constructions work, waiting tables) are done by machines that are controlled remotely via a virtual reality technology. And the machines are operated, of course, by low-paid workers in developing countries, so that the richer countries can have all the benefits of immigration, without the immigrants. During the Q&A, the filmmaker Alex Rivera made the point that (as far as he knows) this is the first movie to look into the future of developing countries. One often sees SF movies that imagine the future of New York, or London, but not of Tijuana or Delhi. One woman asked him how he reconciles the political message of his movie with the corporate sponsorship. (She noticed an acknowledgment to Coca Cola in the closing credits.) I liked his response: “we are all steeped in inescapable horror,” he started, “the Gap clothes I am wearing were made in a sweatshop, and the meat I ate for dinner came from animals that were treated inhumanely.” And he went on to say that we cannot fight everything, we have to keep on living, but for the big things, then it is worth trying to push back as much as possible. (I completely agree.)

Big Man Japan, about a middle-aged Japanese super-hero was also a lot of fun.

I also saw two movies from Chinese “sixth generation” directors. Still Life won the golden lion (the top prize) at the 2006 Venice film festival, and I should have known better than to go see it: European film festival juries are populated by the worst kind of film snobs, and watchable movies are not their thing. In the spirit of Italian neo-realismo, the movie is interested in seeing great societal change through the eyes of the “little people” that are affected by them, and via small, disjointed, stories. I don’t get it. I concede, however, that the scenes about the towns being demolished in preparation for the rising level of water after the Three Gorges Dam is completed, are incomparably more moving, if considerably less polished, than the same images in Manufactured Landscapes Umbrella was a fascinating documentary shot as part of a large project that will produce ten documentaries a year for ten years. Following umbrellas from the places where they are produced, to the places where they are traded, to the places where they are used, the movie looks into five classes of Chinese society, factory workers, merchants, college students, soldiers, and farmers. The shots inside a PLA training facility are fascinating, and the final segment was very moving, with a peasant complaining about the rising costs of farming, the lack of welfare, and then reminiscing about the various farming policies from the 1950s on, and finally weeping by just thinking about the time of the cultural revolution.

Too much of a good thing

The San Francisco International Film Festival starts in less than two weeks, and the program includes 104 movies, described in a 146-page program guide.

If any of you Bay Area readers has already done the work of studying the program and picking good movies, please do leave your recommendations in the comment thread. (I am writing notes on PCP for my class, I haven’t done my taxes yet, there is a long-overdue post on Cheeger’s inequality coming, and the energy to read through 104 movie reviews is lacking.)

You Too Can Be in a Boy Band

The San Francisco International Film Festival is under way, and they are showing, today and on Wednesday, Il Caimano, Nanni Moretti’s latest movie. It’s a movie-within-a-movie story about Berlusconi’s ascent to power and the inability of contemporary Italian left-leaning moviemakers to make movies with political content, unlike the earlier generation of, say, Elio Petri (the director of Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto).

Last weekend there was the North American premiere of The Heavenly Kings, by Bay Area’s own Daniel Wu. Part mockumentary part Borat-style guerilla filmmaking, the movie follows four Hong Kong actors in their 30s as they form a “boy” band despite their inability to sing or dance, trick the Hong Kong press into believing they are for real, and eventually deliver a series of three concerts in Hong Kong, Taipei, and Shanghai. They came in person to the screenings for Q&A sessions, to the delight of a group of camera-wielding women sitting in the first rows.

Put. The Candle. Back

When I was in high school, I watched Young Frankenstein a few times too many, and so did some of my friends. We would sometimes reenact the “Sit down please. No, no, higher” gag at inappropriate times, or say “What a filthy job” when the weather threatened rain, and repeat our favorite lines (“You take the blonde, I’ll take the one with the turban,” “he is going to be very popular,” “A.B. Normal”) for no particular reason. Overall, I knew the movie pretty much by heart, in Italian, that is. (In Italy, foreign movies are dubbed, often by famous actors, not subtitled.) And the “quiet dignity and grace” scene is always with me whenever the excitement of the proof of a major result gives way to the realization that the proof has a fatal flaw.

I have never, however, seen the movie on a big screen. That’s about to change, because the Castro Theater, that has already delighted me with big-screen showings of Manhattan, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Vertigo, 2001: A Space Odissey, The Rear Window, Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and several other movies that came out before my time, is showing Young Frankenstein this weekend!

The funniest scenes in the movies are surreal and incongruous, so the context in which the movie is being screened is oddly appropriate. The movie will show on Saturday at midnight, preceded by a show by Heklina (of Trannyshack fame) and Peaches Christ (of Midnight Mass). What do drag queens have got to do with a nerd cult classic that, as far as I can see, is not camp at all? And then, the whole thing is somehow part of the International Bear Rendezvous of 2007. The bigger (and fatter, and hairer) question then being what do bears have got to do with drag queens and Mel Brooks?

All I can say is that this is the kind of thing that in New York, for all the superior choice of several art movie houses, cannot be found. Score one for San Francisco!

And The Seventh Seal is going to play next week! Now if only they would show The Blues Brothers

[Update 2/19. I stand corrected. Now I see that every good comedy ought to be preceded by a drag show and to be seen with more than a thousand roaring bears.]

You too could be the subject of a film festival

San Francisco is the city of the many film festivals, but this month the programmers of the Castro Theater are having too much fun. This weekend, there was a first annual canine film festival.

At the end of the month, there will be the the first ever Crispin Glover film festival in the world, and, just in time for FOCS, you can catch Crispin Glover in person on October 20, 21 and 22.

And who is Crispin Glover, you may ask? Older readers may remember him from such movies as Back to the Future, where he played George McFly, the nerdy father of Michael J. Fox’s character.

Paper Dolls

Being back in San Francisco for a few days, I had a chance to catch Paper Doll, a documentary profiling a group of Filipino immigrants in Israel, working mostly as caregivers for the elderly.

The Philippines are, for some reason, great exporters of caregivers. Italy has a large such immigrant community, and so do many countries in East Asia. In Taiwan, for example, the exploitation of Filipino maids and caregivers made possible by immigration laws is a cause célèbre of leftist groups. The same legal problems arise in Israel, where a work visa is immediately voided if one is fired, resulting in illegal status and the possibility of deportation. Indeed, the same is true for software engineering on H1B visas in the US, but the difference in class, education, and type of employment (not to mention the possibility of permanent residency) does not quite create the same situation.

The main angle of the movie, however, is that the Filipinos profiled in the documentary are all transgender, and they have formed a group, called Paper Dolls, that performs drag shows at community events.

They are met with acceptance and prejudice in a way that is not always predictable. Their clients, including religious ones, are accepting (even though those working in ultra-orthodox neighborhoods are uncomfortable there). The relation between one of them and the elderly man that she cares for, in particular, is very touching. Their attempt to play their act at a big-name gay club in Tel-Aviv, however, ends in a disaster of cultural insensivity.

Eventually, the group disbands, partly because of the vagaries of the Israeli immigration laws, some of them going back to the Philippines, and some of them moving to London.

The movie does not quite have a point, and its own sensibility oscillates between exploitation and sympathy. If its point was to express this conflict, then it succeeds quite well.

The second time as farce

Tuscany is a fierce place. Locals are famous in Italy for their imaginatively blasphemous way of swearing, their biting sense of humour, and their propensity for practical jokes. Citizens of different cities have rivalries that go back hundreds of years, and in some cities, like Siena, there are centuries-old rivalries between neighborhoods. Thanks to books like this, however, many Americans have an image of Tuscany as an extended, mellow, countryside where gentlemen sit in the gardens of their villas dipping fresh produce into olive oil, in the time that is not consumed by flirting with foreign women.

In fact, the theme of idyllic, if backwards, countryside/small town recurs even in the few Italian movies that achieve wide distribution in the US. (For example Io non ho paura or, a long time ago, Academy Award-winning Nuovo cinema Paradiso.)

Sometimes, people who have to listen to me complain about the above, or who are planning a trip to Italy, ask me what movies they could watch to get a sense of what Italy is like. Unfortunately, my first recommendations (Il Caimano or Aprile by Nanni Moretti, anything with Alberto Sordi) cannot be found in the US. Two good choices are Caro diario and La meglio gioventu’, but it is L’ultimo bacio which comes to mind first.

(Note: I am not talking about the best recent movies from Italy, which are definitely Ozpetek’s movies, but the best movies about Italy.)

L’ultimo bacio is mostly about the character flaws of the four male protaganists, all in their late 20s. The movie was a sensation among my friends (who were also in their late 20s and early 30s when the movie was released), and it spoke to them very personally. They saw an unflattering image of themselves, but, at the same time, the movie is sympathetic to its characters. I had already lived abroad for several years when I saw the movie, and it still felt too close for comfort. This was perhaps the most intensely and specifically Italian movie I had seen in a long time.

Now, however, there is an American remake. This sounds as implausible as an Italian remake of American Beauty, and I wonder what the producers were thinking and whether the movie will work at all.