Traditionally, summertime is a fallow season for cinephiles. While Hollywood studios pelt the country with a blizzard of special effects and dumb scripts, we timorous and pallid film lovers huddle around our VCRs, waiting for the first signs of fall, when intelligent and artful cinema once again noses its way out of the ground and into the theaters.
Now that autumn is imminent, it's not just the improving quality of first-run features that should lift our hearts. Here in the Triangle, there are many alternative venues for catching classic films, art films and locally produced efforts. In fact, the possibilities are so numerous and varied that it's difficult to keep tabs on all of it. What follows is a mere toe dip into the churning waters of the local film scene, which is an eclectic one, with something for just about every taste.
Probably the Triangle's most broadly interesting film program is Duke's Freewater Presentations. Once again, the programmers have devised a slate that includes a mixture of recent indie hits and a thoughtful selection of older films. Friday nights are reserved for second runs of recent features, and the selections range from Julian Schnabel's moody portrait of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls, to Jim Jarmusch's little-seen Ghost Dog, the Way of the Samurai, which stars Forrest Whittaker.
However, even if the rest of the program consisted of Angelina Jolie films, programmer Matt Simon would deserve a gold medal for bringing back the lushest, most intoxicating film of the year, Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love. This film played in exactly one theater last spring, for one scandalously short week during which few people saw it. Starring Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung (Hong Kong's equivalent of 1960s European art film luminaries like Anna Karina and Marcello Mastroianni), In the Mood for Love is the story of two neighbors, living in an impossibly crowded apartment building, who discover that their spouses are having an affair. This melancholy chamber piece will screen on Friday, Sept. 28.
Freewater's fall program includes four separate thematic clusters. The first is rockumentaries, which will screen on Tuesdays, from Sept. 4 to Oct. 2. The series kicks off with Gimme Shelter, a 1970 Mayles brothers film of the Rolling Stones' 1969 tour, culminating with their notorious free concert at Altamont, at which a black man was killed by Hell's Angels who were providing security. However, opening act Tina Turner's oral romance with her microphone is a healthier peripheral selling point for this film. Another must-see is The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese's film of a concert featuring The Band, Bob Dylan and many others.
Picking up on Tuesday, Oct. 9 and continuing through Nov. 13 is a martial arts series, which will include Peking Opera Blues, the 1985 Tsui Hark effort that, more than any other film, brought a new generation of Hong Kong filmmaking to the world stage. Peking Opera Blues is a wild, headlong rush of a film, and is a prime example of the genre's feminism and casual gender bending that has never been equaled in the popular genres of other cultures. Another film worth a look is Heroic Trio, a 1992 gem with a cast that includes Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Maggie Cheung as a couple of butt-kicking superheroes.
On the Thursdays from September 6 through October 4, Freewater will screen Jack Nicholson films from his heyday, before he entered the "Yew can't handle the truth!" phase of his career. These films will include Easy Rider and Prizzi's Honor. The Thursdays of Oct. 11 through Nov. 15 will be devoted to Billy Wilder and will include Double Indemnity and The Apartment, but not, unfortunately, Sunset Boulevard. For a complete schedule, check out Freewater's Web site at www.union.duke. edu/freewaterpres. Unless otherwise noted, all films are at 7 and 9:30 p.m. at the Griffith Theater in the Bryan Center, and tickets are $5.
Moving over to Duke's East Campus, the Screen Society of the Film and Video department and the Center for Documentary Studies are sponsoring a smorgasbord of programs. The big news this year is the inauguration of the Richard White Auditorium, a 250-seat theater that is equipped to screen the frequently fragile archival prints that make up an important part of the repertoire. However, the theater is not quite finished, thus throwing into disarray the fall schedule. Before making any plans to take in a Screen Society or CDS film, call ahead and confirm the time and venue. The new theater is located on East Campus, near the Duke University Museum of Art.
Two important programs are scheduled. The Screen Society is, once again, playing host to the touring film series Southern Circuit, now in its 26th year. Leading off, on Oct. 7, is Alan Berliner's The Sweetest Sound, which was well-received at last spring's DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival. In this film, Berliner ruminates on the meaning of his name, and the sense of identity it confers. On Nov. 11, Paul Shekler's George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire will stop in for the night. Program director Isham Randolph is particularly enthusiastic about this study of the notorious Alabama governor, one of the great bêtes noir of the civil rights movement, and one of the most human, if not humane, of all the bad guys of that era.
The other big program on tap for the fall is the Documentary Film and Video Happening, which is primarily sponsored by CDS. Slated for the weekend of Nov. 2-4, this is a smaller, more localized festival than DoubleTake. Also, unlike its larger cousin, the Happening specializes in holding workshops for budding documentarians. This doesn't mean there won't be stars in attendance--the red carpet will be rolled out for Les Blank, the great, endlessly curious and quirky filmmaker. In his honor, there will be a screening of his unforgettable portrait of Werner Herzog as a stark raving madman in the Peruvian jungle, Burden of Dreams. Not to be missed, but be sure to bring your malaria tablets. Incidentally, the Happening is still accepting entries. Deadline: Oct. 1.
As a hosting site for the multi-campus Latin American Film Festival, Duke will be screening Eisenstein in Mexico, a film about the great Soviet director's abortive, myth-shrouded late project. Other area campuses will be showing such classics as Buñuel's Los Olvidados and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's Death of a Bureaucrat. For a complete schedule of the Latin-American festival, which runs from Nov. 7 through 23, go online and look up www4.ncsu.edu/~kent/FilmFest/htm.
Also slated to screen at the Duke facility are films from departmental programs, which are too varied and numerous to list in this space. However, one film, Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, should be singled out. Made in 1977, it tells the tale of a black slaughterhouse worker, and the effect that his job has on his loved ones. Director Burnett has toiled in honorable obscurity since before Spike Lee emerged to claim the mantle of great African-American filmmaker. Still, Killer of Sheep was declared a national treasure in 1990, and it's set to be exhibited on Sept. 16 in the Richard White auditorium. For a full schedule of Duke's East Campus offerings, see the Web sites cds.aas.duke.edu/film and www.duke.edu/web/ film/screensociety.
Over at Raleigh's Rialto Theater, a wonderful monthly subscription film series is humming along in its fourth decade. The Cinema Inc. specializes in programming an eclectic array of films, recent and old, famous and obscure. This year's schedule begins Sunday, Sept. 9 with the 1990 French hit, La Femme Nikita. The program includes crowd pleasers like Central Station and The Spitfire Grill, but they're also showing the 1925 version of Phantom of the Opera, with the great Lon Chaney; Louisiana Story, a 1948 film by pioneering documentarian Robert Flaherty; and Ride With the Devil, Ang Lee's little seen Civil War drama, made immediately before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon elevated him to the top ranks of international directors. However, these films can not be attended individually--a subscription must be purchased for the entire 12-film package.
And there's more bad news, courtesy of the group's treasurer, Peter Corson: There are only about 60 subscriptions left out of 500, and he expects to sell the rest of them by this Sunday's season premiere. Corson says, "I like to think that we're part of Raleigh's hidden culture. People find us by accidentally tripping over us." No longer: The Cinema Inc. is a full-blown institution, and at $21 for a season pass, it's a movie deal that can't be beat. Tickets are scarce, but give it a shot anyway by checking their Web site at www.cinema-inc.org.
Last week, Carrboro's Flicker film series entered its seventh year. Founded by Norwood Cheek and currently helmed by Jim Haverkamp, Flicker has become the primary exhibitor of locally produced films, in its Cat's Cradle venue. Haverkamp notes that Flicker's most famous alumnus, Peyton Reed (Bring it On), screened a film at the very first Flicker. These days, the Flicker folks congregate on the last Monday of every other month (got that?). The programming is necessarily erratic, and the season's first meeting last month was no exception. On the upside, there was a new film from Cheek, who now resides in Los Angeles, a special showing of George Melies films, and there were sturdy non-narrative efforts by local filmmakers Neal Hutcheson and the team of Jason Middleton and the sadly relocated Natasha Desai.
On the other hand, there was also a paean to projectile vomiting by a Farrelly brothers wanna-be from New Jersey, which was remarkably dreadful. The bad films are part of the fun, however, and the beers start at $2. The next gathering of the Flicker tribe will be in October, and Haverkamp is accepting entries. All entries must originate on film, and they may not exceed 20 minutes in length. For more information, consult the Web site at www.flickerfestival.com.
An additional note: Anyone interested in being in charge of a film festival should contact Haverkamp right away. He's looking for someone to start up an N.C. Independent Women's Film Festival at the Carrboro ArtsCenter. (And there's one more job opportunity, which must be reprinted verbatim from the irresistible Flicker program: "The National Archives is currently seeking someone to preserve the most famous small format movie of all time, Abraham Zapruder's 8mm film of JFK's assassination. Just thought you'd like to know.")
This fall, the redoubtable Skip Elsheimer, better known and multiplied as A/V Geeks, has more of his legendary collection of 16mm educational films lined up for viewing. He is programming monthly shows at Kings and Lump Gallery in Raleigh, and the Center for Documentary Studies in Durham. The shows at Lump and CDS are identical, with the former being on the third Thursdays of every month and the latter on third Fridays. The Kings crowd, on the other hand, has request privileges at their screenings on the fourth Fridays, and Elsheimer programs those shows accordingly. Elsheimer, who is a current winner of an Indie Arts award, has a spanking new collection of 3,000 films that he acquired from a Pennsylvania dealer, and his shows will be a tour through the new booty. To make room for the recent acquisitions, however, Elsheimer is selling off part of his collection on eBay.
For fans of vintage horror and sci-fi, Elsheimer, who has a day job on top of everything else, is programming a monthly film series at the Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. This Friday, Sept. 7, he will be screening The Wolf Man, an old Lon Chaney picture. To keep up with Elsheimer's offerings, go online to www.avgeeks.com.
At last, we turn to our television sets. Our local public station, UNC-TV, is kicking off another wonderful season of N.C. Visions, a show devoted to the work of Tar Heel filmmakers. This season, the series' seventh, premieres this Saturday, Sept. 8, at the rather unfortunate hour of 11 p.m. The first film is a feature called Strangers, and is the product of Winston-Salem director Ramin Bahrani, who shot the film in his parents' homeland of Iran. The plot summary provided by UNC-TV suggests that this film could herald a fruitful North Carolinian-Iranian film alliance: "Strangers features Kaveh, a young man from America with a backpack over his shoulder and a rusty key in his hand, who walks the roads of southern Iran searching for his recently deceased father's childhood home. Along his journey he meets Abdul Reza, a stranded truck driver plagued by his own family responsibilities. Together these two strangers embark on a three-day pilgrimage that pushes each man deeper into the past."
Elsewhere in the eight-week lineup, N.C. Visions will broadcast shorts and documentaries by a veritable murderer's row of Triangle filmmakers, including, but not limited to, Brett Ingram, Khang Mai, the duo of Joshua Gibson and Nancy Ann Norton, and the ubiquitous Jim Haverkamp.
Space doesn't permit a more thorough discussion of this exciting N.C. Visions lineup. Instead, it will be taken up in a future issue. In the meantime, those in the hunt for something hip or something obscure or something cheap should go on ahead and queue up at the Rialto, or drive to Duke's East Campus, or chug on up to Chapel Hill. The long cold summer is over, and the real movies are in bloom.