Art & Culture

The Silver Stream: BAMPFA sets a high—and sophisticated—bar for streaming films

The Silver Stream: BAMPFA sets a high—and sophisticated—bar for streaming films

Come on, admit it, you miss going to the movies. The $15 ticket price on a Saturday night, the $8.75 bag of popcorn, the enormous plastic cups of soda that invariably get spilled and the resulting sticky floors. The blaring pre-event “feature,” usually an infomercial for pre-teen-favorite websites and TV shows, blasting at top volume. Followed by endless coming-attractions trailers (Tom Cruise! Margot Robbie! Those adorable Trolls!). And finally, the feature film itself. Summertime at the multiplex wouldn’t be the same without SpongeBob Squarepants 3, Top Gun: Maverick, or My Spy, with the delightful Dave Bautista. 

See what we’ve been missing out on?

Of course, there are other options for stuck-at-home, movie-loving audiences bewildered by conflicting shelter-in-place orders and confusing reopening-for-business schedules during the current pandemic. Seemingly every company that has anything to do with motion-picture entertainment has its own customized streaming platform these days, bringing movies to suit every conceivable demographic slice of the market, as an alternative to “temporarily closed” theaters.

But the Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive is different. BAMPFA’s “Watch from Home” program, which began streaming April 14 with the art-history documentary Beyond the Visible: Hilma Af Klint, takes aim, naturally, at the higher reaches of the cinematic universe. In keeping with its reputation as one of the world’s most-prestigious film museums, the Berkeley-based Archive is partnering with an impressive roster of releasing companies to bring its special brand of indie, foreign, classic and art titles to subscribers, for a fee—in most cases $12 for three days of access (BAMPFA typically splits the ticket price 50-50 with distributors).

According to BAMPFA media relations manager A.J. Fox, the Archive is currently offering product from Kino Lorber, Zeitgeist Films, Magnolia Pictures, Film Movement, Rialto Pictures, Juno Films, Neon Films, Arbelos, Icarus Films, Grasshopper Films, Argot Pictures and Milestone Films—with the possibility of additional releases to come.

No one knows more about the museum’s new streaming offerings than co-interim director Susan Oxtoby, who together with her fellow curators got Watch from Home up and running beginning in mid-April, under all-too-familiar lockdown conditions.

“It’s like learning to walk again,” says Oxtoby, who works from her East Bay home while the museum is closed for the interim. “We were presenting 500 programs a year, and our job now is to carry forward that tradition,” now necessarily scaled down in the absence of daily-change live presentation.

The museum’s website (BAMPFA.org) currently lists 18 films, chosen by the curators, for rent from its partners. These titles will eventually be rotated out gradually, to be replaced by different films in the same vein—a mixture of the new and the classic, with the emphasis on independent work. Nothing from the so-called “majors.” The films are supported by layers of extra features online, including live-stream talks and directorial spotlights, with the goal of continuing the Archive’s long-standing mission of fostering “thoughtful conversations on film.” Users would follow a special link to the appropriate film’s purchase page, with the rental proceeds split between the releaser and BAMPFA.

So Many Choices, So Little Time

The roster of rental streaming choices has the look of a typical BAMPFA schedule from the Before Time, when ticket buyers gathered in the museum’s auditorium. There are three historical dramas from Hungarian director Istvan Szabó (Colonel Redl, Mephisto and Confidence). A classic French film noir: Jules Dassin’s Rififi. One film each by two of the Archive’s all-time most popular auteurs (Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders and Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó). A documentary on the Black experience: Dawn Porter’s John Lewis: Good Trouble. A socially conscious drama from renowned British filmmaker Ken Loach (2019’s Sorry We Missed You). A World War II character study from contemporary Russian director Kantemir Balagov: Beanpole.

Also: The Grey Fox, a rarely seen 1982 indie drama by Canadian director Philip Borsos, starring real-life stunt-rider-turned-actor Richard Farnsworth. A clutch of Chilean docs by the director of The Battle of Chile, filmmaker Patricio Guzmán: Nostalgia for the Light, The Pearl Button and The Cordillera of Dreams. Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own, a documentary on the German-American sculptor, by cinematographer-turned-director Daniel Traub. And a documentary profile of the late Pauline Kael, a woman who meant everything to BAMPFA and the city of Berkeley, as the early touchstones for her career as America’s most notorious film critic. What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, is written and directed by Rob Garver and distributed by Juno Films.

Spaceship Earth tells the documentary story of a group of “science hippies” who met in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury in the ’60s, moved to New Mexico and then Oakland before building their own sea-going ship and sailing around the world, and eventually gravitated toward an attention-grabbing, large-scale experiment. In 1991, eight members of the “cult”—none of whom reportedly used drugs or alcohol—went into a huge “biosphere” they had built in the Arizona desert. The goal was for them to live in the closed-system, sealed atmosphere for as long as possible, inside their own mini-replica of the Earth—a test of long-term sustainability. How does it all work out? Matt Wolf’s 2020 doc, released by Neon, is as suspenseful as any sci-fi spectacle.

Chilean exile writer-director Patricio Guzmán’s three-part epic documentary The Battle of Chile (1975–79) shows how his beloved Latin American homeland descended into right-wing barbarism in the 1970s under the Pinochet military junta. Guzmán has played variations on that sad theme ever since (see Nostalgia for the Light and The Pearl Button, also on the BAMPFA streaming playlist). The Cordillera of Dreams (2019) is his latest, a beautifully shot, thoroughly melancholy meditation on Chile as it is today, still “dreaming” of the society that used to be before the golpe (coup), with the majestic, treacherous Andes mountain range as metaphor. One of Guzmán’s guides is Pablo Salas, a free-thinking videographer who somehow avoided being “disappeared”—he stayed in Chile and still records street demonstrations, adding to his large library of footage, an invaluable record of the people’s resistance. Cordillera of Dreams is distributed by Icarus Films.

Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers (2019) marks a departure for the director, one of the leading lights of the recent “Romanian New Wave.” Instead of revisiting the Eastern European settings of 12:08 East of Bucharest; Police, Adjective and his other politically tinged dramas, Porumboiu follows his undercover police detective protagonist Cristi (played by Vlad Ivanov) to La Gomera in the Spanish-speaking Canary Islands for a sardonic tale of international crime, complete with a femme fatale (Catrinel Marlon), a mocking motel keeper hung up on opera records (George Pistereanu), a Spanish drug ring and el silbo gomero, the islanders’ whistled secret language. The plot contains enough twists and red herrings to confuse the casual viewer, but that’s probably the director’s point. Deadpan verbal humor reigns, along with a slow-but-steady accumulation of gunshot victims. Sample dialogue: “You trying to drive guests away with this music (a Maria Callas aria)?” “No, trying to educate them.” Presented by Magnolia Pictures.

Portrait of the Artist

Hilma af Klint is not exactly a household name in the visual-art world. The Swedish artist (1862–1944) grew up in an aristocratic family of naval architects and based her paintings on her studies of “atoms in the universe” and her spiritual investigations into theosophy and anthroposophy. Dismissed in her time for the seeming obscurity of her vision as well as for the fact that she was a woman in a European fine-art milieu dominated by men, Klint is generally recognized today as the first abstract painter. Director Halina Dyrschka’s 2019 documentary Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint treats us to a deep-ish examination of orderly geometric musings from the artist’s prodigious output—color fields, whimsical diagrams, nature studies and Klint’s dynamic, late-period works devoted to the subject of water. Although New York’s Museum of Modern Art evidently has had its doubts about the importance of Klint’s oeuvre, a growing body of contemporary art historians consider her the forerunner to such modern masters as Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky and Andy Warhol. Beyond the Visible is a Zeitgeist Films release.

Extra Added Attractions

There are special, streaming perks for BAMPFA members, including free films such as Mikhail Kalatozov’s live-wire 1964 dramatized portrait of revolutionary Cuba, I Am Cuba (June 20–21) and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Mystery of Picasso, an irresistible portrait of the artist at work, spontaneously drawing pictures with a marker and oil paints in front of Clouzot’s camera. The Picasso doc played in May, but there are plans to keep adding other member freebies in the coming months.

Also highly recommended for stay-at-home aficionados is the online essay “Charm Offensive: The Films of Warren Sonbert,” a tribute by writer Max Goldberg to Sonbert, the late San Francisco creator of a series of magical, mystical shorts. Goldberg’s essay is part of the museum’s “Out of the Vault” project. Another pop-cultural treasure at your fingertips: “Off the Shelves: Pauline Kael and the Berkeley Cinema Guild,” an appreciation of Berkeley’s legendary film critic and movie-house operator Kael, by BAMPFA research associate Jason Sanders. The Sonbert and Kael texts are just a small taste of the Archive’s voluminous holdings, now largely accessible from home. Hint to programmers: how about a mini-retrospective of Sonbert’s short films, or a tribute to the massively influential Kael in the form of a series of her favorite films?

CineFiles for Cinephiles

And then there’s CineFiles, an ongoing project of the museum’s Film Library and Study Center, likewise available online. With the newly revamped CineFiles, film fanatics who want to learn more can look at reviews, press kits, program notes from film festivals and Archive screenings, and other documents related to Archive-inflected movies. CineFiles listings are elaborately cross-referenced, for those late-night excursions when you absolutely, positively have to get the lowdown on, say, Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s documentary on the 1980s New York City drag scene.

Lots of people assume the Archive could just open its vaults and live off the accumulated hoard of its vast holdings, without looking outside, thus obviating the need to rent titles from other sources. “It isn’t quite that easy,” cautions A. J. Fox. Many of the movies in BAMPFA’s warehouses are fragile prints subject to varying degrees of rot and degradation, the notorious “inherent vice” of the art form in its purest state, à la highly flammable nitrate stock. The way to make BAMPFA’s stash more available to the public would be to digitize each and every film—an expensive, time-consuming project. So don’t expect to be able to browse through the Archive’s complete collection anytime soon.

It all boils down to this: duplicating the complete BAMPFA “shared entertainment experience” at home on your computer screen or home video setup is doable, but at best it’s a rough approximation. There’s really no substitute for watching a rare film restoration in the Archive’s screening room, with the filmmaker in person taking questions from the audience. Or enjoying a Japanese silent drama—for instance, director Gosho Heinosuke’s Taishō-era romance The Dancing Girl of Izu, accompanied by live performers vocalizing and playing traditional instruments. Susan Oxtoby realizes this. “We miss being together, sharing films with an audience.”

However, a significant part of the total package can be replicated online, with no physical distance barrier. Offers Oxtoby: “We have the potential to reach a broader audience with streaming.” So there’s an arguable upside to the pandemic for fans of classic, indie, foreign and documentary film. While we wait out the virus, the germ of cinematic creativity continues to thrive in public view. All you have to know is where to look for it.

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