Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Kurtiss Hare and I met in line waiting for films at the 54th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF54). I checked out his Cinefrisco website and was impressed with his succinct observations on film. I am delighted that he has accepted my invitation to intern for The Evening Class and look forward to his welcome additions to the site. For starters, here are five entries from his SFIFF54 coverage.

* * *

Werner Herzog’s latest film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, illuminates the hidden nooks of the Chauvet caves located in the South of France. Etched along the concealed rock faces of these fortuitously preserved walls are a series of paleolithic sketches, dating back to 40,000 years ago. Herzog approaches these treasures gingerly and with a tremendous sense of reverence.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a sort of pilgrimage to the heart of man at the first awakening of his artistic awareness. It’s this spiritual and ancestral connection that opens the film up to achieving an awe inspiring height. The film suspends us there, asking us to cross a chilling chasm of time and, finally, to gaze upon the works of humanity’s first artist. At this altitude, we discern only the most profound whisperings from the mouths of caves: what is the true story of man, and in telling that story, is man capable of uncovering truth? [Cinefrisco.]

* * *

Before watching Raúl Ruiz’s, The Mysteries of Lisbon, festival programmer, Rod Armstrong, introduced the film as the director’s self-proclaimed “final film” in a corpus of more than eighty. After having seen the film, I can say that, given the 272 minute runtime, it was no gentle introduction to his body of work. It did, however, reveal to me a library of films that I presume to be devastatingly beautiful and no less compelling.

The Mysteries of Lisbon traces the life of a boy named Pedro da Silva, who, through a series of vignettes and recollections, slowly brings in to focus the blurred enigma of his identity. In seeing this film, you will experience murderous intrigue, multiplicitous agents of vengeance, and the strange contortions of forbidden passion. As you leave this film you will appreciate the masterful camerawork, the intricate mise-en-scène, and the luminescent psychological examinations. In short, you will be a fan of Raúl Ruiz. [Cinefrisco.]

* * *

In his seventies, Hal is a recent widower. When Hal tells his son, Oliver, that he’s no longer content to be only theoretically gay, Oliver watches his father blossom into a man suddenly turned confident, happy, and vivacious. In a tragic turn of events, shortly after his coming out, Hal is diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.

Spanning multiple timelines, Beginners focuses on Oliver’s relationship with Hal through his illness, and then, in the present, on his relationship with Anna, a new love interest. The full burden of history, from his parent’s choices to society’s hangups, press heavily upon Oliver as he attempts to find some degree of happiness for himself.

Beginners is a playful and sophisticated construction, and despite its bearing plenty of indie-genre hallmarks, it manages to sway clear of the genre’s typical emotional shortcuts. Mills employs an expository sort of film-making, evident in script and montage, that begs you to cling dearly to the emotional journeys of his characters. [Cinefrisco.]

* * *

The Atacama is an arid, high-elevation desert mounted resolutely against the heavens that span the Chilean sky. For decades, it’s been the site of several world class astronomical observatories, whose ability to envision our planet’s milky expanse goes unparalleled. The formidable instruments there boast a sort of magnificent clairvoyance, able to lure an ancient photon from the stasis of its spangled hideaway.

This windswept plateau also blankets the forsaken remains of some of the tens of thousands of political prisoners taken during the Pinochet military dictatorship. A host of forlorn mothers and family members scour this uninhabitable terrain for their missing loved ones.

In Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzmán winds these two strands with poetic competence. Equal parts belletristic field journal and impassioned exhortation, the film draws a sensitive link between the scientific examination of celestial bodies from aeons past and the lamentable hunt for those buried human bodies, whose remains will bring closure and whose stories demand justice. [Cinefrisco.]

* * *

Grazing the Utah grasslands is a herd of Bison—a species whose majestic profile evokes the very essence of the frontier, and whose appearance in packs begs a sense of fearful reverence. To bring so mighty a being to its grave, whether for sustenance, sport, or the nourishment of a sadistic attitude, is no paltry task. Still, settled among these roving kings of the plain, is a pack of tired, old cowboys who would have you pay for a handheld tour of such ruination.

The Last Buffalo Hunt is an often nuanced documentary, and—as many will say—perhaps too much so. But for the inclusion of one particularly racist joke (which was not recounted by the film’s subject, rather one of his oddly uninhibited clientele), it nails a surprising degree of objectivity in depiction of the story’s primary antagonism. Aesthetically, the matter is neither bloodlessly romanticized nor is it simplistically vilified. For so inflammatory a subject, this is, to my mind, not a cowardly achievement. Instead, it applies a subtle pressure on the quality of the film’s thematic dialog. The viewer is introduced to an especially interesting exploration of the paradoxical nature of romance and plight in the perennially adolescent American West, the profound influence of what can only be described as a culture with a self-propagandizing predilection, and the balance and justness of the battleground man is wont to leave in his warpath set against nature. [Cinefrisco.]

Cross-published on Twitch.

Monday, May 16, 2011

SFIFF54—Michael Hawley Wrap-Ups Four Special Events

The 54th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF54) drew to a close on Thursday, May 5, after showcasing 193 films from 48 countries at 265 screenings (134 of which featured special guests). During those 15 jam-packed days I took in 29 films, which will be encapsulated in a future entry. Meanwhile, here's a look back at four memorable SFIFF54 special events I attended. All of them, not surprisingly, transpired inside the city's beloved Castro Theatre.

But first let's talk about regrets—yes, I've got a few. I didn't see Oliver Stone get this year's Founder's Directing Award, nor screenwriter Frank Pierson's acceptance of 2011's Kanbar Award. I was also M.I.A. for Mathew Barney's Persistence of Vision Award ceremony and producer Christine Vachon's State of Cinema address (which fortunately, I was later able to watch here). Most of all, I regret having to pass up the Terence Stamp tribute, which featured an on-stage interview by Elvis Mitchell and screening of Federico Fellini's Toby Dammit. Stamp was here to receive the Peter J. Owens acting award, an incredibly inspired choice the festival seemingly pulled out of its hat at the 11th hour. I heard it was an unforgettable evening and the Castro was nearly sold out, no mean feat considering the event had only been announced one week prior. Alas, the four events I did attend were spectacular enough to assuage any feelings of remorse.

SF Film Society Director of Programming Rachel Rosen, star Ewan McGregor and director Mike Mills on stage at the Opening Night screening of Beginners (photo by Tommy Lau).

Moments after entering the Castro Theatre for the Opening Night screening of Mike Mills' Beginners, I heard the disappointing news that star Ewan McGregor would not be attending. His flight from Paris was cancelled (something about gasoline pouring from the plane's wing while taxiing for takeoff), but there was a possibility he'd arrive in time for the after-party. The unenviable task of informing the Ewan-adoring crowd of this development befell Director of Programming Rachel Rosen. Following the screening, she and director Mills were in the middle of a very engaging Q&A when a man strode past my aisle seat. From the back it looked like it could almost be—yes, it was indeed—him! McGregor's first words from the stage were, "Sorry about that," and for another half hour he and Mills told some very funny tales about the production of Beginners. My favorite involved co-star Christopher Plummer and several pairs of black skinny jeans. Woe to those who missed seeing McGregor in order to beat the crowds to the fabulous opening night party at Terra Gallery.

British band Tindersticks accompany a clip from Claire Denis' film Nenette et Boni on stage at the Castro (photo by Pamela Gentile).

I'm sure it's no longer a secret to anyone that the original recipient of this year's Founder's Directing Award was meant to be Claire Denis, who unfortunately bowed out at the last minute. Her spirit, however, was still very much present at SFIFF54. For this year's film-with-live-music event, the festival presented Tindersticks: Claire Denis Film Scores 1996-2009. Over the course of 70 glorious minutes, the British band Tindersticks performed 23 compositions from the six Denis films they've scored, while corresponding images towered above them on the Castro's huge screen. The eight musicians commanded the full width of the stage, and side-lights bathed them in colors that changed according to the moods of their cool, impassioned music. I was particularly thrilled to hear the throbbing twang of L'intrus' main theme, and the lovely title song from Vendredi soir, featuring the reedy vocals of lead singer Stuart Staples. This astounding show was one of only two U.S. performances and one of only six worldwide. In short, a rare privilege to behold a certified coup for the festival.

Mel Novikoff Award recipient Serge Bromberg hams it up before his presentation spotlighting 100 years of 3-D cinema (photo by Pamela Gentile).

More than any other film or event at SFIFF54, I was most anticipating Serge Bromberg's Retour de Flamme: Rare and Restored Films in 3-D. This presentation of 100 years of stereoscopic cinema coincided with Bromberg receiving the festival's 2011 Mel Novikoff Award, "bestowed upon an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public's appreciation of world cinema." I'd seen Bromberg—a consummate film preservationist, programmer, director (Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno), raconteur and showman—work his magic on the Castro stage twice before. The program would surpass my already high expectations as one of the greatest film events I'd ever attended.

Following the awards ceremony and brief on-stage interview (where Bromberg shared some harrowing film preservation war-stories), the amazement commenced. First up was 1941's Third Dimensional Murder, a silly haunted house short with monsters throwing things at the camera. This was the only film that required old-style, red and blue-lensed 3-D spex. After that, modern polarized glasses came into play. I was delighted to see some of my favorite cartoon characters in 3-D, like Donald Duck and Chip 'n' Dale (Working for Peanuts, 1953) and Bugs Bunny (Lumber Jack-Rabbit, 1954). A trio of 1950s Russian films, collectively known as The Parade of Attractions, featured 3-D vistas inside an aviary and large aquarium (look out for the octopus tentacles!), plus a juggling act that had the Castro crowd dodging flying clubs. One of the longer works of the evening was Motor Rhythm. Made for the 1939 World's Fair, this was a 3-D stop-motion animated musical in which a Chrysler-Plymouth assembles itself part-by-part (you can watch an eye-straining 2-D version here). Modern 3-D animation was represented by the likes of John Lasseter (Knick Knack, 1989) and a brand new Road Runner cartoon by Matthew O'Callaghan (Coyote Falls) which closed Bromberg's presentation.

At one point Bromberg reminded us that France was the true birthplace of cinema. So perhaps it was no surprise that the two most affecting segments of his program featured the works of French pioneers Georges Méliès and the Lumière Brothers—names not normally associated with stereoscopic cinema. It turns out that Méliès unknowingly invented 3-D movies when he simultaneously shot European and American negatives with side-by-side cameras turned by a single crank. By assembling bits and pieces of both negatives (representing left and right eye), and using a computer to stabilize the images, Bromberg has been able to partially construct a 3-D effect for three Méliès shorts. In Parafargamus the Alchemist (1906), for example, a large serpent puppet appears to slither right into the audience. For me, the highlight of the entire event was three short stereoscopic films shot by the Lumières in the mid-1930s. In one, the camera is placed squarely on a train platform and in another, on a crowded beach. Passersby walk near the cameras and occasionally stare into them, the 3-D effect bringing these distant personages to life in ways that no 2-D image ever could. The effect was akin to emerging from a time machine whose dial was set to 1930s France. It gave me the shivers.

New Burlesque performers Mimi Le Meaux, Evie Lovelle, Roky Roulette and Kitten on the Keys walk the Castro red carpet before the Closing Night screening of On Tour (photo by Tommy Lau).

Before I knew it, the festival's 15 days had sailed by and I was back at the Castro for the closing night film, On Tour. French actor-turned-director Mathieu Amalric stars as a washed-up TV producer who takes a troupe of six American New Burlesque performers on a tour of French harbor cities. As luck would have it, California and the Bay Area in particular are at the epicenter of New Burlesque, making it possible for four of On Tour's performers to attend the screening. During the Q&A, they discussed how the project came about and what it was like being directed by one of France's most famous actors. They also revealed why the film may never see a U.S. release. Apparently, either the descendents of Screamin' Jay Hawkins or Aerosmith's Steven Tyler (they weren't sure which), is demanding €300,000 for the rights to one song heard in the movie.

Mid-Q&A, performer Roky Roulette excused himself, stating that he needed to return home (he lives in the Mission District and has two daughters). We should have suspected it was a ruse. When the Q&A ended, he returned to the stage costumed as KFC's Colonel Sanders, chawin' on chicken and doing a funky striptease down to a g-string and explosion of feathers. In a San Francisco Chronicle interview the week before, I'd read that Roulette's claim to fame is a striptease he performs while riding a pogo-modified hobby horse. Sure enough, at the festival's closing night party he brought the house down with this routine, putting one helluva an exclamation point on SFIFF54. You can watch a video of it at the film-415 YouTube channel.

Cross-published on film-415 and Twitch.

Friday, May 06, 2011

MOTHERS & MOVIES: The Evening Class Interview With Mom

Back in June 2008 I had the opportunity to interview film historian Matthew Kennedy with regard to his recently-published volume on Joan Blondell. When I asked Matthew how he had become involved in writing film history, he responded: "Well, I can't say I went to school to study film because that wouldn't be true; but, I always loved film as a kid. My Mom loved film and she was a great fan of '30s movies and whatnot, so—if something showed up on TV—I would watch it with her and she would explain, 'Now, that's Humphrey Bogart. He was this person and he married that person.' Through osmosis—by my Mom being a fan—I became one. I never thought about writing about film until much later."

Naturally, this reminded me of a similar education received from my mother when we would watch afternoon matinees on the TV with Mom training me to identify actors. Actors were the first group of people I associated with movies—long before I was won over to the directorial auteurship of filmmaking—precisely because Mother was interested in actors. I suppose that at that time movies were pure escapism for housewives and this body of experience was like a syllabus a mother could hand down to her children. When I relayed this to Matthew, he confirmed that our mothers were alike in that they talked more about the stars than specific films. "I realize now," he offered, "that these personal stories formed the basis of my own exploration into classic films."

On the occasion of my mother's 80th birthday this last October, I decided to sit down with her once again in the middle of an afternoon to talk about our love for movies. This transcript is my way of telling her: thank you, Mother, for this wonderful gift you gave me; this gift we share. I love you.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Mom, I'm curious about the first movies you watched as a young girl?

Mom: The first movies that I can remember seeing were actually westerns, Michael.

Guillén: Were they short reelers?

Mom: In those days they had what they called chapters. Western serials. But the first real movies that I saw were Shirley Temple movies, like Little Miss Broadway (1938) and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938).

Guillén: How old were you then?

Mom: Well, I'm about three or four years younger than Shirley Temple. She'd be about 84 or 85 right now. She'd made these pictures but I didn't get to see them until about three or four years later; but, I remember her and I would try and go see any Shirley Temple movie that I could. Then, of course, the Walt Disney movies started coming out, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Bambi (1942).

Guillén: Since you came from a large family, when you went to see the Shirley Temple movies, did all of your sisters go with you? Or was it just you?

Mom: Actually, when I was that little, we weren't a large family yet. In those days you would only pay 10 cents to go into a movie. I would save my pennies. I used to have a little red wagon when I was five or six years old and I would go out and do little odd jobs. My brother, your Uncle John, had fixed up this little wagon for me. It had different-sized wheels. All four wheels were different sizes. It'd be flopping around all over the place but I would pull it and go around and do little odd jobs for people and they would give me a penny, two pennies, or something like that and I'd save them. Of course, your Uncle John was pretty smart and he'd say, "Well, if you give me a dime to go to the movies, I will do certain things for you." It wasn't that he was mean or anything. He just wanted to go see a western. In those days it was Roy Rogers, mostly Gene Autry movies. We wouldn't go together. At that time there weren't many kids who could afford ten cents to go to the movies.

Guillén: And this was when you were growing up in Colorado?

Mom: Yes, in Grand Junction, Colorado. So, I would save my money and I would go to the movies and sometimes they would have free shows for some of the poor kids. They'd give us a free movie now and then.

Guillén: Did you ever see any silent movies?

Mom: As far as silent movies, I don't remember ever seeing any because they were never shown to us. I do remember seeing one with Charlie Chaplin but I don't remember a whole lot about it. It was a comedy and I think it had Mary Pickford in it and I remember enjoying it but don't remember too much else about it. At the time it wasn't a movie that I had anything in common with and I didn't really quite understand it.

Guillén: You were a little bit of a tomboy, weren't you? Is that why you preferred the westerns?

Mom: I was a big tomboy! I loved the westerns, but then everybody did. They made everybody feel good. I mean, the good guy in the white hat always won. They were different than the westerns nowadays. Their plots were a little silly but they were good and we kids liked them. And like I was saying, they'd be in serials and something exciting would happen, a cliffhanger, and you'd have to go back the next week to see what happened.

Guillén: Did you go to the movies with your mom?

Mom: Oh yeah, Mom loved the westerns. Every Gene Autry movie Mom wanted to go see. She was just crazy about Gene Autry. All the neighborhood—even though as I said we lived in a poor neighborhood—we'd all pinch our pennies to try to get together and go to the Saturday matinees.

Guillén: It's always kind of amazed me how movies provide that relief during hard times. Even now with the economy doing so poorly in the U.S., people still somehow scrape up ten, twelve, fifteen bucks to go to the movies.

Mom: Because it kind of takes you away from the problems you might be having. You escape into that world you're seeing on the screen. That's what it did for me. Another movie that was popular at the time, certainly popular with me because I was such a tomboy, was Tarzan. I'd come home and become Nyoka the Jungle Girl. I broke my arm once because I tried swinging from one tree to another as Nyoka.

Guillén: Nyoka the Jungle Girl?

Mom: I think that was her name. I was just five or six years old but I had tied a rope from one tree to another and I proceeded to do what she did or, at least, I thought I could. I didn't. I didn't tie it tight enough and, of course, when I tried to swing across from one tree to the other tree, I didn't make it. So, yes, I was very much of a tomboy.

Guillén: I'm surprised then that you were so fond of Shirley Temple.

Mom: Well, it was like there were two people inside of me. [Laughs.] One part of me wanted to be Nyoka the Jungle Girl and the other part wanted to be a dancer and a singer, because I was good! But there was this other part that was a tomboy that wanted to do what the good little girl couldn't do and it got me into a lot of problems. I broke my arm. I broke my front teeth. In the third grade there was this boy who dared me to slide down the slide standing up and, of course, I didn't make it very far. My shoes stuck to the metal of the slide and I toppled down and hit the bottom and broke my front tooth. I was a mess! When I went home, I scared my mother half to death.

I tried things like that. I wasn't scared of doing anything. And I think it was the movies that was inspiring me and giving me these ideas. I figured, "If they can do it, I can do it." I never realized that it was make-believe in the movies. So I would try all these stupid things but, thankfully, I never seriously injured myself too bad. But, yeah, Tarzan was one of my favorites and the westerns with Gene Autry. Roy Rogers wasn't that well-known yet. He hadn't come into his time yet.

Guillén: What about The Lone Ranger or Zorro? Were they around yet?

Mom: Not at that time. They came a little later on when I was a little bit older. But Zorro did become one of my favorites and you used to really love The Lone Ranger.

Guillén: I've always had a thing for masked men. Talk about movies having a bad influence.

Mom: [Laughs.] Oh, Michael!

Guillén: And the thing about Zorro that was so cool for me was that he was Spanish! He was like us! Did his ethnicity mean anything to you?

Mom: Oh yes, I thought he was fantastic. I just fell in love with Zorro. I connected with the fact that he was a Spaniard and—being that my grandfather was from Spain—I fell in love with the stories that came out about Zorro. They came out in sequels too and so I would want to save my ten cents and go back every week to see what happened to him. But sometimes I couldn't save up enough to go so I'd miss a chapter, miss a week.

But old movies from the '30s, it was difficult for a lot of us to go to see them. Even though we wanted to, we just couldn't scrape up enough for all of us to go. Like I said, I was the little hustler. I would stand in the street corner and sing and passers-by would throw pennies at me, sometimes nickels, and I would come home with a little bag full of change. I'd give some to Mom because I knew we were struggling and it would help buy something for all of us. And then as I said, my brother John always managed to get at least a dime from me to go to the movies. Then things started changing for the better and we got the chance to go to the movies more often.

Guillén: So when you went to see movies and they were in serial form, did they also include a news reel?

Mom: Oh, they always had a news reel! That's how you got your news. They were mostly about what was happening in America; but, of course, as I said, being the age I was, I didn't connect with the news reels because I didn't think that what they were showing was really real. I remember I was 10 or 11 years old when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and that's when the news reels became a little more real for me. That's when I could understand that they were actually news. But before then, I could see it on the screen and knew it was happening but it seemed so far from how we lived that I didn't really get involved, do you know what I mean? But they were interesting. I liked the travelogues. But mainly I just wanted to see what I had come to see.

Guillén: From a tomboy who loved westerns and action movies, did your movie preferences shift as you became a teenager?

Mom: Yeah, I got into the Betty Grable and Alice Faye musicals. I would always memorize everything Betty Grable did because I wanted to be a dancer and a singer. I guess I wanted to be in show business but never quite made it. I used to imitate Betty Grable's songs, Alice Faye's songs, but Betty Grable was my favorite.

Guillén: Was this around the time that you were an usherette at the Adelaide Theater in Nampa, Idaho?

Mom: Yes, I would have been around 13, going on 14.

Guillén: Can we talk about that experience? How you became an usherette at the Adelaide?

Mom: Well, I went in to apply for a job because they were hiring help. Bill Snead was the manager of the Adelaide Theater at the time. He had several girls working for him. It was a big theater. They had usherettes for every aisle and they had usherettes for the balcony and they were all in uniform, all very presentable, very nice, and the theater itself was very nice. I walked in there, applied for a job, and Mr. Snead thought I was a beautiful, young girl but I think what made him really hire me was that—when he said, "Yes, I'll hire you"—five of the other girls quit because I was Mexican and they didn't want to work with a Mexican. That really bothered him. "All right," he told them, "go ahead and quit. If you think that she's different than you are, then I am going to make her different than you are." He would order my uniforms in a different color. He had pictures taken of me and the lobby was full of photos of me. I wish I still had all those photos he had taken of me; I don't know what happened to them other than the one or two I've given to you. Bill Snead made me be proud of who I was. Those five girls quit but he hired other girls and they eventually accepted me because he gave me great chances to advance. I went from an usherette to a ticket seller outside and then—when they brought in the popcorn maker—I worked at the concession stand. He was a great boss and he did a lot for me and my self-esteem and I'll never forget him for that.

The Adelaide would have talent shows and, of course, I was the main attraction. I didn't mind getting up on the stage and making a spectacle of myself. I would sing "Guadalajara" and "Allá en el Rancho Grande" (from the movie of the same name) and—though I didn't know a lot of songs—I could sing these songs that I had grown up with.

Guillén: You'd grown up with those songs but had you actually seen those Mexican films?

Mom: No, I hadn't. I knew the songs because every Mexican knew them. [Mom sings:] "La cucaracha, la cucaracha, ya no puede caminar porque no tiene, porque le falta las dos patitas de atrás." Even my grandmother would sing "La Cucaracha" but she would use the alternate lyrics: "La cucaracha, la cucaracha, ya no puede caminar porque no tiene, porque le falta marijuana a fumar."

Guillén: [Laughs.] God bless my Great Grandma Teresita!

Mom: We'd sing all those songs around the house. We'd get together in the evening and roast avas.

Guillén: Avas?

Mom: Yeah, avas, we called them "horse beans" and we'd roast them like chestnuts. We'd peel them and they were soooooo good. We'd cook them too but I never liked them cooked. And while we'd be roasting avas, the older people would sit around and tell stories and sing songs and that's where we kids learned these songs.

Guillén: When you were working as an usherette at the Adelaide, do you remember any of the movies they were showing there?

Mom: At that time, Michael, there were a lot of war movies because we were at war. That's also when the westerns became even more popular because they helped people forget about what was going on. But there were also a lot of dramas, love stories like Wuthering Heights (1939).

Guillén: So from Shirley Temple to Nyoka the Jungle Girl to Betty Grable and Alice Faye, as the movies progressed, did different actresses begin to speak to you?

Mom: Oh yes. Rita Hayworth became one of my favorites.

Guillén: At the time, did you know she was Latina?

Mom: I knew she was half-Spanish. Her mother was white, I think. I knew she had been a professional dancer with her father and they would come and dance in the border towns along California and Texas. Her name then was Cansino. I don't know who discovered her but they brought her to Hollywood and they changed the color of her hair and she became one of my favorites because she had that Spanish look. That had an impact on me because you didn't see that so much in those days. Latinos either played servants or roles with heavy accents and stuff like that so when I saw Rita Hayworth come out in a good movie, it made me feel proud.

Guillén: How about some of the other Latina actresses like Dolores del Río?

Mom: Dolores del Río was fantastic. For me, she was one of the greatest actresses from Mexico that ever lived. Another great Mexican actress was María Félix.

Guillén: So by now you were starting to see films from Mexico?

Mom: Some. Not many.

Guillén: Where were these Mexican movies shown?

Mom: Not in Idaho. Like I said, Idaho at that time was very opposed to anything Mexican. It was when we were in California that I got into the Mexican movies and that was more into the middle and late '50s. That's when I got to know "El Indio" Emilio Fernández, Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Cantinflas.

Guillén: Actors from the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema.

Mom: Yes, the Golden Age. I got to see some of Dolores del Río's older movies at that time. I always enjoyed them. And that's one thing I've never been able to understand. That was at the time when nobody wanted to admit that they had any Latino blood in them because Latinos were treated so badly wherever they went. But watching these actors and actresses from the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema affected me just the opposite. I was proud to be Mexican and I didn't care what people thought of me. I defended who I was. I never denied it. I was never ashamed of being Mexican.

Guillén: Orale, Mama! [I clutch my mother's hand and feel like crying.] So let's backtrack a bit and talk about the story you've often told me of how a talent scout wanted to take you to Hollywood to screen test for the movies.

Mom: That was when I was working as an usherette at the Adelaide. I was about 14 years old. That talent scout begged my father three or four times to give them the chance to screen test me for movies. That was at a time when Hollywood sent out scouts looking for talent. But my dad was very old-fashioned and I don't think he realized the opportunity I was being offered. He looked at Hollywood as something really bad. The talent scout assured him, "No, we'll send her to school. We'll train her." Because I had a voice, Michael. And I wasn't afraid to get on the stage and sing. I didn't suffer from stage fright. When The Adelaide had its talent show every Wednesday I'd get up on that stage and I'd have my friends in the audience yelling their heads off for me—"We want Dolly! We want Dolly!", that was my nickname back then—and I'd always win those talent competitions and come out in the paper. They'd say, "Our little Dolly Santisteven: the Mexican bombshell!" Your brother Larry told me he actually found one of those clippings on microfiche. He went looking for it because he didn't believe me. But there it was right on the front page with my picture.

Guillén: How did you get that nickname "Dolly"?

Mom: Because my grandmother Teresita could never say my name Adulina. She would always say, "Dóle." And so it stuck and everybody started calling me "Dolly."

Guillén: So it was kind of like your first stage name? Back to the talent scout, Grandpa Elizardo put his foot down and said no.

Mom: That talent scout even went to our house three or four times to talk to Dad and to try to explain to him that I wasn't going to do anything bad, they would never let me do anything bad, they would keep a close watch on me, they just wanted to train me to sing and dance. But Dad said, "No, no, no, no!"

Guillén: Do you regret his decision?

Mom: Yes, I do. Because it was something I really enjoyed doing. I always regret not being able to do something that I really wanted to do. I'm not saying I would have become a superstar or anything like that; but, it would have been a chance to try. Because it was in my blood.

When we used to live out in the section in Cisco, Utah—I don't know if I should say this—but we had outside toilets and Mom kept it as clean as she could. But the toilet lid was made of wood. As a little girl of about 10 I would go out to the outhouse and practice my tap dancing on the toilet lid. Mom was always terrified I was going to fall in. She would yell at me because I was always out there dancing in the outhouse. [Laughs.] I'd be practicing my Shirley Temple steps.

Guillén: As a young girl, were you caught up in movie magazines?

Mom: I couldn't afford to buy them but I had friends who could buy them and they'd lend them to me and I'd go through them. I liked Screen and Photoplay.

Guillén: So then came television. When did you first get to watch television?

Mom: The first television I ever saw was when I was in the hospital in Baltimore back East, because that's where they first started coming out was back East. We didn't have a television until the late '50s-early '60s. Your Grandpa Elizardo got one and then Moises and I got one. [Moises Reyes was my stepfather.]

Guillén: I guess what I'm getting at is what it was like for you to suddenly have movies available to you on the television? You were a housewife at this point, right?

Mom: Yeah, and it was great to have movies on TV. I didn't actually get a TV for myself until late. Dad got a TV and maybe I'd run over there to watch Dale Robertson in that western that Grandma used to like: Tales of Wells Fargo? She used to like Cheyenne too. And some of the soap operas at that time were very popular, but I never really had the time to watch TV. Other things came into my life and I just couldn't keep up with them. Then all the talk shows came on, and now the reality shows, but I never really liked either of those. I prefer to sit down and watch old movies. The old movies were so good, their stories, their plots, the actors, and I was so happy when they finally started using some of the Mexican actors in better parts.

Guillén: By the "other things" that came into your life, I'm presuming you mean Barbara, Larry and me, your three kids? Suddenly you were taking us to movies. It amused me the other day when you recalled that the first movie you took Barbara to see was Them! (1954).

Mom: That was an awful experience. I regretted that for the rest of my life. Barbara was traumatized by that movie.

Guillén: [Laughs.] I'm sorry to laugh but I just think it's hilarious—knowing how terrified Barbara was of insects—that you took her to see that film. Were you hoping to help her get over her fear of insects? Is that why you took her?

Mom: No. We went because I loved those movies! I love science fiction. I went through a period where I liked those scary movies. I don't like the kind of scary movies they have now, but I liked those science fiction movies from the '50s: Them!, The Thing (1951), Tarantula (1955), remember? I liked seeing those. And I never in my wildest dreams thought that Them! would scare mijita half to death. Poor Barbara. I've thought about that so many times, "What did I do to my little daughter?"

Guillén: It's intriguing because it was before the rating system so how would you, as a mother, know when you took us to the movies if it would be suitable for a kid or not?

Mom: I didn't know. I just wanted to see Them! but I never thought it might affect Barbara the way it did. If I'd known how she would react, I would never have taken her to a movie like that.

Guillén: Do you remember the first movie you ever took me to?

Mom: You've told me it was some kind of sex movie.

Guillén: [Laughs.] I don't know if that was the first movie you took me to, but I remember you taking me to a fairly mature movie where a woman exposed her breasts and that had me bug-eyed.

Mom: I can't remember what it would have been because in those days they wouldn't even allow a married couple to lay in the same bed together. I remember Island In the Sun (1957) where everyone went berzerk because Harry Belafonte held Joan Fontaine's hand. I just don't remember, hijo, what movie I might have taken you to.

Guillén: Oh, that's okay, Mom, don't worry about it; it just turned me gay.

Mom: Oh, Michael! [Laughs.]

Guillén: What about the 3-D movies you took us to?

Mom: Those were fun. There again, I scared the daylights out of Barbara and I think Larry too because there was one where a flaming arrow came right out at the audience and it looked so real. Maybe it scared you too, do you remember? You were probably too little and were probably running up and down the aisles.

Guillén: Probably. Running up and down the aisles was a blast at that age. It was later that I really remember watching movies with you, usually mid-afternoon matinees on the TV. You loved certain movies that you would watch again and again and, by my sitting there watching them with you, I learned to love them too. Movies like The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949) with Larry Parks in the role of Al Jolson.

Mom: Al Jolson was the one who introduced talkies. He owned Broadway at one time.

Guillén: So it was Jolson's music that you loved in those movies?

Mom: I still do love that kind of minstrel music. I liked how he presented it. It bothered me that he had to paint his face to do it; but, I loved the way Jolson sang. And I loved the movies because of the way they told Jolson's story. I actually got to see movies with the real Al Jolson but I can't remember much about them because that was way back then when I was a little girl.

Guillén: Another musical I remember you watched repeatedly was With A Song In My Heart (1952) with Susan Hayward in the role of Jane Froman.

Mom: There again, that was a movie about a real performer. Jane Froman did a lot to entertain the troops. That's where actresses like Alice Faye came into the picture for me, because of WWII when they went overseas to entertain the boys. I loved Jane Froman's story and Susan Hayward played that role beautifully.

Guillén: In retrospect, I now see that you taught me an appreciation for melodramas, or what used to be called "women's weepers". It seemed you were always watching movies like Back Street (1961), again with Susan Hayward, and Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life (1959).

Mom: Oh, and remember The Enchanted Cottage (1945)? I loved that movie. It was such a beautiful fantasy. It was something that wasn't real and couldn't really happen, but it felt real. It was one of my favorites.

And I still loved westerns like James Cagney in The Oklahoma Kid (1939). And did you know that he and Humphrey Bogart didn't get along in that picture because when Cagney came out with his big hat, Bogart told him he looked like a giant mushroom? Still, they ended up making three or four films together. I loved the story of San Francisco (1936) with Clark Gable.

Guillén: How about more realistic films like crime dramas and film noir?

Mom: I loved crime stories; but, you didn't see a lot of crime stories in those days. There were some—White Heat with James Cagney; a lot of the gangster movies with Edgar G. Robinson—but, the truth is that I liked a variety of films. I didn't concentrate on just one kind of film. If I thought I might like a film, I'd try it, I'd go see it. I liked the sob stories but I remember I walked out of Wuthering Heights one time because I was crying so hard I couldn't see!

Guillén: You also liked religious movies. Song of Bernadette (1943) was one we watched together a few times.

Mom: I liked The Song of Bernadette. I liked The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952). I loved all the Mexican movies about the Virgin of Guadelupe. And I think Jeffrey Hunter was the best Jesus in King of Kings (1961). I liked Hunter a lot too in Joaquin Murrieta (1965).

Guillén: Were the Classic Hollywood divas like Bette Davis or Joan Crawford of any importance to you?

Mom: I liked their movies. I wasn't crazy about them but I did like a lot of their movies. I especially liked Bette Davis when she played the Queen of England with Errol Flynn. And I loved Olivia de Havilland when she played with Errol Flynn in They Died With Their Boots On (1941). And I liked Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945). They weren't the most beautiful actresses, but they were excellent actresses, and those were excellent films. My favorite actresses were Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner.

Guillén: I always thought you looked like Ava Gardner.

Mom: Everybody did. There was a picture in the paper once and everyone was asking me, "How the heck did you get your picture in the paper, Dee?" And I said, "I'm not in a picture in the paper." It was a picture of Ava Gardner but I swear it looked like it was me. I saved it but I don't know what happened to it. I wish I had her beautiful eyes.

Guillén: How about your favorite male actors?

Mom: Oh, I loved Tyrone Power. My favorite of his was The Mark of Zorro (1940). Further back, Rudolph Valentino. I was yes and no with Gary Cooper, and yes and no with Jimmy Stewart. I liked them but I preferred actors to be dashing and swashbuckling like Errol Flynn. Gone With the Wind (1939) was one of the best movies ever made and no one could have played Rhett Butler like Clark Gable but then again he was not one of my favorites. And I adored John Garfield. It's sad that he died so young. I also thought Alan Ladd was awesome in This Gun For Hire (1942). He came out with Veronica Lake in that one.

Guillén: Thinking back, you taught me a lot about actors and actresses and the star system of the studios; but, did you ever consider directors?

Mom: No. Most people didn't back then. Later on, around the time they made The Godfather and when they spent a lot of money on those huge productions, then you'd learn a little bit about the people behind the scenes but earlier on, no, I never thought about directors or producers.

Guillén: The first director I became aware of was Alfred Hitchcock.

Mom: Oh yes, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles.

Guillén: You've watched Orson Welles?

Mom: I watched a few of his movies. But I knew more about him because he had married Rita Hayworth. Again, I came around to him through the movie stars. I remember Citizen Kane.

Guillén: Did you like Citizen Kane?

Mom: Not particularly, because I didn't quite really understand it. Maybe now if I'd see it again I might understand it a little bit better. I've never had the chance to see it again. Now that I'm older, I grasp things that I didn't grasp back then.

Guillén: Do you go to movies now?

Mom: No, I haven't gone to a movie, Michael, since 1971 when I went to see Lady Sings the Blues. That was in Twin Falls and the last time I was ever in a movie theater. Now I watch movies I loved when I was young on Turner Classic Movies. That's my station.

Guillén: So, my final question: if there was one movie in which you could have played the starring role, which movie would that be?

Mom: I would have liked to have played the role of Lolita Quintero that Linda Darnell played alongside Tyrone Power in The Mark of Zorro.

Guillén: Thank you, Mother, for remembering all these movies with me.

Mom: Thank you, hijo, for letting me.


"Mothers of America, let your kids go to the movies! ...It's true that fresh air is good for the body but what about the soul that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images?"Frank O'Hara, "Ave Maria" (from Lunch Poems, 1964)

During one of my conversations with film historian Matthew Kennedy, I realized that both of us had acquired our love for movies through our mothers, which led me to wonder how many other cinephiles—filmmakers and audience alike—have shared a similar experience? In the past year, I have asked several individuals: "Did your mother have any influence on your cinephilia? Did she influence the movies you watched or—in the case of filmmakers—the movies you've made?" Along with the generous anecdotes received from various Bay Area cinephiles (published at SF360), and the contributions from international cinephiles at MUBI, these three responses to my inquiry were particularly eloquent and I felt they grouped into a theme and warranted an entry of their own. To Jesse, Jonathan and Richard, I extend heartfelt thanks for being so open with theirs.

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks, Impresario / Educator

My Mother returned from an East Coast trip in the Summer of 1985 with a handful of recorded VHS tapes. I was nine years old. As we watched Wes Craven's A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984), my life changed forever. My parents had already blown my tiny mind a few years prior when (at the age of five) they took me next door to watch Ridley Scott's Alien on the neighbor's HBO cable TV setup. But this very particular concept: watching a VHS tape on Fridays, after school, with my Mother, became a weekly After School special.

She would pick me up in the back of Nibley Park Elementary School in Salt Lake CIty, Utah. We would speed up Foothill Drive, order some gourmet nachos at a nearby restaurant (The Mushroom Company) and make a mad dash into our favorite rental store (Neighborhood Video). You see, my Father was a DJ at the community radio station on Friday's "Drivetime", so if we could load up and be back home by 3:00PM, we might be able to pack in three films before he arrived home at 6:45PM (7:00PM if traffic was slow). So running around the jam packed video store, I scanned the wire racks, grabbing every horror film that my subscription to
Fangoria had ever mentioned. Then, as I wove my way over to my Mother in the comedy section, I lingered at the New Release wall, eavesdropping on the older staff's "new favorites". I wanted to work there! I wanted to know which films had just come out! I wanted first dibs on all those movie posters hanging on the walls! Uh oh ... I could see Mom walking over to me! "The nachos are probably getting cold. Are you all ready? Did you pick one out yet?!" I sheepishly would raise up my pick: Return to Oz, Stand By Me and Halloween III: Season of the Witch (again). She had two picks herself: Real Genius and St. Elmo's Fire. (She had such a crush on Val Kilmer and Andrew McCarthy!) What to do? It was pushing 3:15PM already! So my Mother would do what any Mother should do ... Rent All Five!

Every Friday, from the age of nine to fourteen, we would arrive home, heat up the nachos, cook up some extra cheese and set up our living room plates. But wait ... had I remembered to turn on the radio to record Dad's radio show?! "Come on Mom, it's
on!" Mom would come running in with her newly filled tupperware of dried papaya, unsweetened carob chips and sunflower seeds. "It's Friday 'Drivetime' and this is Professor R&B. You are listening to KRCL, 91FM. We're gonna start things off with a little Booker T. and the MG's." As soon as the first song came on, we were good to go! The cassette button ON, down went the sound and the movie extravaganza could begin! It was 3:30PM and we were gonna somehow watch all five films in three hours. Of course we would normally only get through two and a half. And when our DJ would come home, we would rave about how Booker T actually sounded so much better than the previous time we had heard him and then give each other a secret, subtle smile.

But when this little boy started High School, all of this ended. He was 15 and he didn't want to come home on Fridays and hang out with his Mom anymore! In fact he didn't even want to live at home anymore! He acquired a job at a movie theatre. He started plotting ways to run away. In fact, he pretty much did everything
not to be with his Mom and Dad. Sometimes he was even in the house on some of those teenage Fridays, locked away downstairs in his room. What was his Mom suddenly doing with her Friday afternoons? Was she silently upstairs hoping for her son to magically get over his adolescence so she could have her movie companion back? Was she cooking nachos all by herself, predicting that he was going to move away from her for the rest of their lives? Was she going to know that these magical times were going to be something that neither of them would ever forget for the rest of their lives?

As MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS reaches its 10th Anniversary this year, this Mother needs to know that the monthly triple bill (which sometimes stretches into that hypothetical quintuple feature) screens at the greatest Silent-era movie palace in the USA, The Castro Theatre, and screens on those same Friday and Saturday nights and that it's all because of her. Not only have most of these past decades events been created from the exact movies they watched together, but as the film series continues to surprisingly grow, every and all of the future extravaganzas are a sincere tribute to her unconditional love. I love you Momma.

Jonathan Marlow, Executive Director SF Cinematheque

When I was a child, it was essentially just me, my 11-month-younger brother and my mother. Our father disappeared when I was not quite two years old and my mother remarried my (largely absentee) step-father a few years later. Whether that meant there was stronger-than-usual connection between me and my mother (and me and my brother) is difficult to say. The connection was strong and the "father figure" didn't play much of a role at all. At any rate, I largely spent much of my childhood time alone. I was a "reader" and tended to tear through any book that I could get my hands on (a fairly solitary behavior, of course). I could talk (complete sentences at six months) and read (phonetically at about ten months) before I could walk.

One of my earliest memories was watching television with my mother. We lived in the middle-of-nowhere and there weren't many viewing options. I don't suppose this will make sense to children today but there were only a handful of channels at the time. My mother was quite fond of watching programming in syndication and we regularly watched
Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. I wager I was more fond of these latter two programs at the time (since their fantastic premises appealed to me) but it was the former show that really had an impact. It was the first time that I really started to understand the role of the "director" in a film. This rotund fellow—the host of the show (with his name in the title, no less)—also made films.

Occasionally, his films would air on television and we would watch these together. I remember three in particular. The first (I believe) was
Rear Window. There was something about watching the film on television which, by extension, was watching Jimmy Stewart looking out a window (the same dimensions, relatively, as the television itself) and, by further extension, Stewart watching the activities in the courtyard of his apartment building. These layers of voyeurism were fascinating to me. Around this same time, we watched Vertigo and the whole use of a real city as a backdrop for the action was fascinating to me. A whole other disconnection was created during our lone family trip (when I was ten) to San Francisco. The images of the city were still lingering from the film and it was amazing to see a number of those same landmarks during the brief visit. I'm certain it played a part in my decision to move here. The third featured Jimmy Stewart, again, and it was (at the time) my absolute favorite. Whereas Rear Window used Stewart's limited mobility as a key plot point (since we never leave his room), this other film—Rope—used a single location and the illusion (which Hitchcock significantly breaks at two dramatic moments) of a single take.

I've watched this film many, many times. Most folks consider it to be a grand experiment but a failure nonetheless. I think it is absolutely brilliant in nearly every respect. I should admit that I was a fairly naive kid. I watched
Lolita in my pre-teen years and thought it was merely about a fellow with an unhealthy obsession. When someone told me (as a teenager) that the subtext was that James Mason and Sue Lyon had a sexual relationship, I thought the idea was absurd. Of course that didn't happen! As you can guess, I entirely missed the point of Farley Granger and John Dall's relationship in Rope. Perhaps it just wasn't something that I was even prepared to understand. I knew the story was based on a true story but I never bothered to investigate the details. That would've been a clue. I also have to presume that Hitchcock was having a bit of fun with his audience. Of course, at the time, he couldn't really address the sexual preference of the lead characters. But casting two gay actors to play these roles ... certainly not a coincidence. The screenwriter? Arthur Laurents (who was in a relationship with Granger at the time the film was made). Even the choice of Francis Poulenc as the composer of the piece that Granger keeps practicing doesn't strike me as accidental in the slightest. The whole thing is particularly subversive. What keeps me coming back to this film is that fact that Hitchcock does something that is quite unbelievably difficult. He takes this despicable and sadistic act with no prior explanation and then finds a way to make these characters human. You never want them to get away with it but you definitely want to hear them out. You want to understand why they did what they did. In particular, it is interesting that the murder itself is not enough. The thrill is in putting themselves in a position where they can get caught. "Did you think you were God, Brandon? Did you think you were God when you served food from his grave?" Murder? Well, that can happen. A dinner party after a murder? Clearly, there are limits!

My mother never commented on the storyline (or the moral ambiguities) of any of the films that we watched together. Most helpfully, she always emphasized that it was "only a movie." Unlike other children, I presume, nothing in a film ever really scared me. I understood that what I was seeing was fiction* (and, even in documentaries, what we were being presented wasn't all that far removed from fiction as well). No matter whatever I saw, it had little evident effect. There are two exceptions. I remember staying up late one night to watch Brian De Palma's
The Fury, a horrible piece of dreck that I evidently watched when I was eight (based on the year of release). Probably the first time I saw John Cassavetes in a film! There is a sequence toward the end of the film where one of the characters (Cassavetes, perhaps; I've never watched it again) is hovering in the corner of a room. It was probably 1:00AM when the film ended and it was a long walk down the hall from the living room to my bedroom. It was only disturbing because it was particularly unexpected. The only other instance of freak-out was the plot of The Other. I was probably six or seven when I saw it. The whole notion of these two boys really resonated with me since it was reminiscent (unsurprisingly) of me and my brother. I don't know if you've seen it and, if not, I don't want to ruin it for you. If you're familiar with the plot, you'll understand why the "reveal" really messed with me. Not appropriate for a six year old!

*[Unfortunately, due to the limited channel selection at the time and the rapid expansion of home video at the time, we rented plenty of films in my youth. Plenty of horror films, actually. The whole "it's all fiction" thing allowed me to tolerate a considerable amount of nonsense that, these days, I don't have the patience to sit through.]

Richard Von Busack, Film Critic

My mother was a very left wing, very earthy woman (having five kids will do that) and we were both the big cinema fans in the family. She was terrific about driving me to movies I wanted to see. One of the greatest acts of kindness she did for me was driving me 25 miles to see Dr. No and From Russia With Love when it was in re-release, on a last night in a theater in a far away suburb called Monrovia; I'd been spending the summer with my grandparents in Oklahoma and I couldn't convince them to take me. (An excruciating childhood moment: seeing the theater marquee across the highway near Tinker Air Force base, and not being allowed to go. I was a slave to those 007 movies.)

If I was home sick from school with asthma, she'd take me to a bargain matinee, sometimes on Hollywood Boulevard to the cavernous, unplexed palaces that the audiences had deserted in the early 1970s; we saw
The Great White Hope at the Chinese Theater at the first show on opening day. One thing about the 1970s: the word "inappropriate" was never used. I'll never be shocked again, after seeing the kind of movies I saw then (Von Trier tries). No matter what age you were, if you turned up at the theater they were ready for you! I can remember my mom's big rough hand covering my eyes during the money scene in Catch 22 ... and there were other bloodbath scenes in M*A*S*H that were slightly tough for a 12-year-old. And I'll never forget the time we saw Otto Preminger's The Cardinal on the late show: that's the day I learned about abortion, rape and the Ku Klux Klan!

I'd become a film critic—
i.e., a pain in the ass—toward the end of her life. So we didn't always agree on what was good anymore. I loved John Huston's The Dead, and had to basically be lead out in tears; the ending of the story, with the snow on the graves, reminded me that my mother would be gone someday. She didn't understand why I was so stricken. And when we left Breakfast Club, and I was so furious at that Reagan era conformist ending, she didn't understand that, either.

She died very early, at age 49, and she went just as a director was rising up who I know she would have loved: Tim Burton. We were about a half an hour from seeing
Batman, and she had a flare up of pain and couldn't go to the movies with me and my brothers. Don't know how many times I've since seen it—probably 6 or 7 times—and the scene of Michael Keaton leaving roses on the sidewalk was something I mentally dedicated to her.