Escape from New York: San Jose

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Many of Reverse Shot's staff writers and contributors come from and reside in locations all over the U.S. and beyond. Escape from New York is a new column devoted to reminding us Manhattan-and-Brooklyn-centric moviegoers that we are not the world when it comes to cinephila. In the following weeks and months, look for dispatches by a handful of our best writers from such far-flung locations as Taipei, Tel Aviv, London, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and more.

Mo’ Silicon Valley Blues
by Fernando F. Croce

I chose cinema early on in life. (Or did it choose me?) Some three decades ago in my native São Paulo, I befuddled my parents by turning down a trip to the Brazilian equivalent of Disneyland in favor of a matinee screening of Robert Altman’s Popeye. The ensuing years would bring countless cinematic findings, yet it wasn’t until I moved to San Jose, California, that I first became aware of the idea of a community of fellow film-lovers. Up to then, movie-watching even in the most packed theaters had struck me as an essentially solitary act; these were secluded moments of thrilling discovery savored but seldom shared. It was during my junior year at San Jose State, following a visit to the university’s unofficial film club—a gaggle of stoners watching Yasujiro Ozu’s Equinox Flower on a TV, basically—that my exploration of the area’s extracurricular cinematic possibilities took off.

However, as I read about the evolved film communities of other cities in the country and abroad, the enthusiasm became laced with envy: where the hell was San Jose’s Film Forum, its Cinematheque française, its Angelika? For a while, adventurous screenings seemed to take place only in the distance, beneath the Gaston Leroux–worthy chandeliers of San Francisco’s Castro Theatre or in the august, classroom-like arrangements of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA). Indeed, it was during a two-part screening of Out 1 at the PFA in the early 2000s, surrounded by true believers who had come prepared with blankets and lunchboxes to take on Jacques Rivette’s legendary 13-hour behemoth, that I first felt the buzz of communal cinephilia. There was something about strangers making their way through that marathon riddle together, suffering through it and delighting in it and peppering each other with queries and interpretations and recommendations during the intervals, that was both comforting and revelatory.

I continue to value the San Francisco and Berkeley film societies as vital cultural centers, though I now realize how a touch of the-grass-is-always-greener syndrome had blinded me to varied and lively cinephile clusters that had been right under my nose. Perhaps most invigorating about San Jose’s moviegoing scene is the informal bridging of wannabe blockbusters and art-house obscurities that one finds in even the sleekest of multiplexes. Pioneering this integration are the Camera Cinemas, a chain of local theaters founded in the mid-Seventies as a way for buffs to avoid the long drives to Berkeley’s classic repertory venues; now spreading from San Jose to Campbell and Los Gatos, they are considered a cornerstone of Silicon Valley cinephilia. With their clanking projectors, old-school concession stands and burgundy carpets, these venues carry a history of grindhousers, Sundance darlings, and martial-arts bonanzas, to say nothing of the occasional Three Stooges festival. They even survived competition from a vast United Artists multiplex, which, erected in downtown San Jose in 1996 within walking distance of the original Camera One, found itself being renovated into Camera 12 less than a decade later. Not that the largest theater conglomerates are too monolithically mainstream here—as recently as last winter, a flashy studio mechanism like Tron: Legacy and a bowl of dour indie-soup like Winter’s Bone could be found playing side by side in the same AMC theater, with an unsubtitled Bollywood musical one screen over.

In addition to first-run Hollywood releases, independent features, and imports, Camera Cinemas also work to bring Silicon Valley buffs together with a monthly series of cult movies. The films, hipster faves screened around midnight in suitably beer-lubricated spots, run the gamut from tried-and-true audience-rattlers (The Exorcist, Taxi Driver) to genre-blurs (Akira, Zardoz) to is-it-ironic-or-not Eighties nostalgia (Ghostbusters, Pretty in Pink). Live emulations of scenes from The Rocky Horror Picture Show are a constant staple of the series, though sing-alongs of a different sort can be found at Campbell’s Camera Seven, where filmed performances of lavish opera and ballet productions are screened employing HD digital projection. Catching Puccini and Verdi classics one moment and trying out the building’s 3D screens and D-Box Motion Simulators the next makes for a heady night out, but one wouldn’t expect less from a theater managed by South Bay auteur (and Twitter prosateur extraordinaire) Alejandro Adams, whose selection of valuable cinematic fare reflects the sharp intelligence that goes into his own arresting films (Around the Bay, Canary, Babnik). Adams also works behind the scenes of “Look of the Week,” a half-hour show on local CreaTV hosted by critic, editor, and film studies teacher Sara Vizcarrondo that, with its array of interviews and wide-ranging movie-love, has the potential to emerge as a true axis of Silicon Valley cinephilia.

A great variety of filmic panoramas can be found in other theaters as well. With its high ceilings and murals of striking, billboard-sized posters of Citizen Kane and Metropolis, CinéArts on Santana Row comes closest to capturing the ceremonial lushness of old-fashioned movie houses. Classic Hollywood glamour (down to a silent-movie organ) is also the allure of San Jose’s California Theatre, a grand stage that, after eight decades of performances, concerts, and festival events, remains as palatial in its golden colonial designs as the Castro. And, speaking of classic Hollywood, there are local venues specifically dedicated to resurrecting our silver-screen phantoms. Palo Alto’s Stanford Theater has a long and noble history of mounting extensive yet affordable retrospectives around stars, directors, and genres, featuring such treasure troves as “Bette Davis: Complete Early Films,” “Directed by George Cukor,” and “Hollywood Musicals ’29-’39.” Reaching further back, Fremont’s Niles Essanay Museum specializes in continuous helpings of silent cinema, alternating acknowledged landmarks (Intolerance, Battleship Potemkin) with hard-to-find entries (Clara Bow in Down to the Sea in Ships, newsreel glimpses of fin de siècle San Francisco life) and Harold Lloyd and Charley Chase comedy shorts. Classics are also often chosen for the open-air showings of Starlight Cinemas, played for free every month in downtown San Jose (bring a lawn chair).

No less than New York or San Francisco, San Jose is privileged to boast a film festival of its own. Having just passed the 20-year mark, the recently wrapped Cinequest Film Festival continues to showcase a mix of crowd-pleasers, offbeat international underdogs, and budding regional visions. I had for eight years helped write the program notes for some of the films; attending it this year as an outside observer rather than a contributor, I marveled at the selections, which, though undeniably less consistent than those of more established festivals, nevertheless displayed an admirable breadth of genres, moods, and cultures. Glossier, fell-good entries like Potiche and Soul Surfer played to large, eager audiences, but so did more original and challenging pictures like Togetherness Supreme, Sinestesia, Tomorrow Will Be Better and Bi, Don’t Be Afraid. There were provocations (the sub–Harmony Korine Little Baby Jesus of Flandr), frissons (bloodsuckers in Midnight Son, werewolves in Hair of the Beast), and plenty of genre pleasures (action directors could do well to study Raavanan’s storytelling brio). There were panels on the potential of 3D technology, appreciation for the classics (respectful for Nosferatu, cheeky for Plan 9 from Outer Space), and, perhaps most excitingly, the discovery of talent (following Hell Is Other People with The Glass Slipper, Jarrod Whaley continues to grow as one of the Valley’s distinctive directorial voices).

If there’s a recurring theme to Cinequest this year, it’s the storytelling potential of music. It’s in the entrancing ancient tales spun melodically in Bardsongs, or in how Madly in Love’s musical sequences inflame and harmonize the emotions of its multicultural characters. Indeed, the opening-night movie, John Turturro’s heartfelt Neapolitan documentary Passione, takes as its subject the ways songs are read as snapshots of people’s stories, values, and sensations. That theme could just as easily apply to films, of course, and it reminded me of the importance of cinephilic connection, in San Jose and beyond—the need to approach cinema not just as a gateway to our inner selves, but also as a launching pad to the rest of the world.