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Editorial

Offbeat Cinema Around the Bay

by Sura Wood

Local cinephiles have diverse and compelling choices this month.

Around the Bay in November: a pair of boutique festivals produced by the San Francisco Film Society that highlight the latest in French and Italian cinema; programs featuring archival footage of a now-vanished Bay Area and its environs; and the San Francisco Symphony’s presentation of Alfred Hitchcock movies as you’ve never heard them before.

For San Francisco Symphony’s “Hitchcock Film Week,” the orchestra performs live musical scores from several of Hitchcock’s classics while images from the films are projected on a movie screen above the stage. Eva Marie Saint, the slinky blonde who bewitched Cary Grant and scrambled down the face of Mount Rushmore with him in “North by Northwest,” hosts an evening in which the orchestra accompanies excerpts from that film as well as from “To Catch a Thief,” “Dial M for Murder” and “Strangers on a Train.” Hitchcock’s frequent collaborator, Bernard Herrmann, composed the music for “North by Northwest” and seven other Hitchcock films, including “Psycho” and “Vertigo.” The latter, a 1958 psychological thriller filmed in and around San Francisco, stars James Stewart as a private detective and Kim Novak as the mysterious woman he’s hired to follow and with whom he becomes dangerously obsessed. It is screened in its entirety at a second event and accompanied by a live performance of Herrmann’s propulsive score. “Hitchcock used sound to heighten emotion and as a result his films were perfect canvases for such a great musical dramatist,” says Steven C. Smith, author of the biography “A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann.”“Herrmann’s music is essential to our feeling what James Stewart’s character is experiencing, from the dissonant cacophony of strings, brass and percussion that evoke his character’s fear of heights, to the soaring, Wagneresque love music at the film’s climax.” Smith gives a talk prior to the “Vertigo” concert. Oct. 30-Nov. 2, Davies Symphony Hall, Van Ness Ave. at Civic Center. 864-6000. http://www.sfsymphony.org

The San Francisco Film Society’s regional film festivals, New Italian Cinema (NICE) and French Cinema Now (FCN), offer a tantalizing glimpse of European culture past and present. Veteran French filmmaker Claire Denis brings brutal honesty to her portraits of modern French society. Her latest effort, “Bastards,” which will be shown at FCN, is a troubling exploration of the poisonous effects of money, power and class, shot on digital by the director’s longtime cinematographer Agnes Godard. In a lighter vein, Nicolas Philibert’s documentary “House of Radio” is set in the busy offices of Radio France amidst celebrities, like Umberto Eco, who waft in for interviews, and a cast of real-life characters producing quiz shows, musical performances and the news. NICE showcases the work of emerging filmmakers like Silvo Soldini’s “Garibaldi’s Lovers,” a comedic take on contemporary Italian life in which a Greek chorus of famous figures, including Leonardo da Vinci and Garibaldi, the 19th-century politician of the title, comment on the action. In Paolo Sorrentino’s bittersweet closing-night feature, “The Great Beauty,” an aging author, who once aspired to be the king of Rome’s Dionysian high life, searches for meaning beyond the sensual excesses of la dolce vita. FCN: Nov. 7-10; NICE: Nov. 13-17, Clay Theatre, 2261 Fillmore St. http://www.sffs.org

A rebellious spirit with a fiercely independent cast of mind, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a prolific actor, playwright, composer and film director who lived fast and died young. He made 40 films before dying from a drug overdose at age 37 in 1982. Influenced by Jean-Luc Godard and American melodramas of the 1950s, Fassbinder’s movies reflect his empathy for people living on the margins and his sober understanding of the human capacity for cruelty, suffering, self-destruction and desire.

The abuse of power and the way the past haunts the present permeate works such as “Martha,” an indictment of German fascism in which a young woman is trapped in a sadomasochistic relationship with her tyrannical husband, and “Veronica Voss,” a biting satire masquerading as a melodrama about a deluded, washed-up movie star descending into drug addiction while dreaming of recapturing her glory days in Nazi Germany when she was the toast of the town and a confidante of Joseph Goebbels (think “Sunset Boulevard” with Norma Desmond courting the Third Reich). Both films are part of a Fassbinder series screening at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, presented in collaboration with Pacific Film Archive through Dec. 21. http://www.ybca.org.

The Oakland Museum’s ongoing “Year of the Bay” celebration launches new programming this month with “Bay Motion: Capturing San Francisco Bay on Film,” a multi-channel video installation of archival footage shot by Hollywood crews, tourists and industrial outfits from the early days of cinema through the 1970s. The short films, encompassing life, leisure, work, family outings and the Bay landscape, are drawn from the Prelinger Archive, a repository of advertising, educational and amateur films. Selections on view include process plates—high-definition film footage used for Hollywood background scenery that shows the Bay Bridge during the era of the Key System, when trains traversed the lower level of the bridge—and outtakes from Hollywood films set in San Francisco, such as Orson Welles’ “Lady from Shanghai.” “A Cinematic Study of Fog in San Francisco” is the brainchild of the ever-inventive filmmaker Sam Green, who teams with cinematographer Andy Black in an experimental documentary investigating fog and the emotions it engenders. Green and Black, who collaborated on the 2003 Oscar-nominated documentary “The Weather Underground,” about a group of 1960s radicals, examine the magical confluence of wind, air and sea and the alchemical effects it produces as it rolls through the Golden Gate. “The fog evokes impermanence and the fleeting nature of beauty,” Green says in a video made during his residency at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center in New York. “It’s like an animal, a weird presence that defines the city. Everyone who lives here has a relationship to it.” Nov. 9-June 29; http://www.museumca.org