In 2010 I saw 100 different movies in 100 different theaters. Here are the details.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

20. The White Ribbon

Embarcadero Center Cinema
At 5 screens, the Embarcadero Center Cinema is Landmark's second largest theater in the Bay Area, after the Shattuck in Berkeley. Many might also consider it the crown jewel of independent film in San Francisco (though the Kabuki has now thrown its hat into the ring as well). The theater is located on the Promenade of One Embarcadero Center, which sounds classy, but from the photo below you can see that the entrance is quite ugly. The building is accessible from nearby BART, light rail, and bus, and is near at least one parking garage. Just blocks away from the wharf, and several parks and restaurants, the theater's location makes it easy to turn a movie into an outing.

The theater has an unusual layout. The center of the lobby is occupied by a large atrium, with a sculpture suspended in its center and benches wrapping around the atrium's edge. During the day the lobby is filled with light and is quite attractive. The box office is in one corner of the lobby, and the auditoriums, collectively seating 953, jut off the lobby from the other three corners. There is an electronic ticket kiosk beside the box office. The ticket takers are at the entrances to the auditoriums, so you're welcome to wait in the lobby for other members of your party.

Built in 1995, the theater is one of the newest in the city, predating only the AMC 1000, Metreon, and San Francisco Centre. But its decorative style, with funky geometric shapes adorning the auditorium walls, make it seem a bit older. And isn't concrete (built today, ugly tomorrow) timeless?

I was chatting with a fellow patron, Russ, before the movie began, and he informed me that the concession stand sells vegetarian hotdogs.

Russ is a big movie fan, and, having worked at the Castro, he knows his theaters. He spoke well of the Royal Theatre (1916-1998), Surf Theatre (1926-1985), and Alhambra Theater (1926-1998, a beautiful palace, where I saw Toy Story). Cinema Treasures lists 138 theaters that have exhibited movies at some point in San Francisco, only twenty of which still show film on a regular basis. I moved to San Francisco in 1995; eleven theaters have closed since then. We might take these venues for granted, but they can disappear quickly.

I first visited the Embarcadero in 1996 for Emma, with my friend Susannah, who is still a regular movie buddy. In 1998 (my favorite year for films), I saw both Sliding Doors and The Governess there. The White Ribbon marks my sixth visit.


Saint John of Las Vegas
Steve Buscemi works for an insurance company as a paper-pusher. His life is a bit pathetic (he pours his income into Lotto tickets), but he's happy in his cubicle because Sarah Silverman sits right beside him. Buscemi's boss, Peter Dinklage, decides to send Buscemi into the field with Romany Malco to verify some insurance claims. Destination: Las Vegas. The way I see it, Buscemi, like William H. Macy in The Cooler, has nowhere to go but up. This movie will be quirky, and the shared producing credits of Spike Lee and Stanley Tucci adds some respectability to what could otherwise be a dreary independent film in which our protagonist gets his teeth kicked in for ninety minutes. The trailer is funny, well-edited, and features lots of fun, colorful, well-composed shots. But it shows a lot of the film, so I recommend skipping it. 141 cuts.

The Last Station

The Most Dangerous Man in America
I'd never heard of Daniel Ellsberg before this trailer. This documentary portrays him as a Pentagon official who photocopied and made available to the press thousands of pages of top secret documents, chronicling the clandestine activities of presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson in South East Asia that would eventually escalate into the Vietnam War. I don't know my history well enough to back this up, but perhaps Ellsberg's efforts first alerted the public to the moral ambiguity of the conflict, and helped it become the unpopular war that we now remember. The film looks very interesting and gripping; the trailer shows several graphic, historical photos and video clips of the death and destruction wrought by the U.S. I wish this movie had been released five years ago, during the height of our more recent "compassion is treason" mania. Ellsberg delivers a wonderfully damning line: "It wasn't that we were on the wrong side . . . we were the wrong side." There is a hint that this documentary will make the same mistake that so many others do in the historical genre, by trying to recreate events with actors; these are cheesy, as cliched as the Ken Burns effect, and blur the line between journalism and fiction. 59 cuts, though there are lots of unusual fades that make this count a bit arbitrary, depending on what seemed like a cut or not.

The Girl on the Train (La fille du RER)

Émilie Dequenne is the victim of an anti-Semitic attack on a train. The attack gains national attention, but Dequenne's mother, Catherine Deneuve, suspects that her daughter fabricated the account. The trailer reveals none of Dequenne's motivations, instead spending most of its 60 cuts watching her roller skate. Could be quite tense; either our heroine has been assaulted, but those closest to her think she is lying, or she is quite troubled and will no doubt feel the wrath of the nation when her lie is revealed.

The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band - Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte)
In the years prior to World War I, the German village of Eichwald is witness to several strange and anonymous attacks on its citizens. The local doctor, returning from a ride, is felled when his horse trips on a span of wire stretched across the path. The doctor is rushed to another town, and his horse, dead, is carted off. Mysteriously, when detectives finally come to investigate the scene, the wire has been removed.

The Baron employs on his farm nearly half of Eichwald's laborers. At times he plays the benevolent patriarch, such as when he hosts the annual festival to celebrate the harvest, but he is also resented for having so much control over the village's livelihood. A farmer's wife, working in one of the Baron's mills, dies when the floor beneath her caves in. Her family blames the Baron for her death, believing the Baron knew the building was unsound, but assigned her to the mill anyway. Later, the Baron's young son is found beaten in the forest. Suspicions are publicly aired, and the village's society begins to fracture.

Though the film is couched in a retrospective account by the town's schoolteacher, our perspective as a viewer is wider than the teacher's own personal experience. We spend time with the teacher, following his interactions with all the town's children, and his burgeoning romance with a nanny, Eva. But we also gain intimate access to the households of the Baron, the farmer (whose wife died in the mill), the Baron's steward, the pastor, the doctor, and the mid-wife. Between those six families there are more than twenty children; all told we have in excess of thirty characters to keep track of (my brain was most taxed during the classroom scenes, when I tried to recall who were the parents of the various children).

According to the schoolteacher's narration, his tale is meant to help us understand the events that came after (i.e. either the first or second World War, or both), that perhaps in the village's religious rigidity, and stark division between adult and child, we could unearth the seeds of German fascism. I'm not convinced. Change the dialog to English and I would have believed that the story took place in the United States during the same period. The characters are complex: loving, hateful, forthright, dishonest, obedient, rebellious, and altogether familiar.

There is some interaction between households, in public spaces, but mostly we delve into the individual drama of each family. The awkward romance between the teacher and Eva is delightful. She is so shy, and chooses her words so laboriously, she might be old enough to marry before she even speaks a single sentence.

The pastor rules his family sternly. At times he forces his children to wear a white ribbon until their behavior demonstrates the same innocence and purity represented by the ribbon. He whips his children (we watch from a corridor as a boy is sent to fetch the switch with which his own sentence will be carried out), but also shows compassion when allowing his youngest to care for an injured bird.

Once inside the farmer's home we begin to understand what a stranglehold the Baron has on the community, the he decides who is employed, and who starves. There is more at stake for a family than honor or an individual life; revenge must be subjugated to survival. Over at the doctor's house, in the doctor's absence his teenaged daughter must raise her young brother, and help him understand death and cope with a missing father. In a different house, we witness a tirade from one lover against another that is devastatingly callous, and entirely believable. We might be unique among all species for our capacity to intentionally inflict emotional damage to those who love us. (Contrast this scene to when the teacher first meets Eva; there is something he wants, but in the delicate exchange he subverts his own desires to hers.)

The film is well made. Its trailer claims "It feels like a classic even as you are watching it for the first time". This is true, but it achieves this without being pretentious; rather, it employs simple, aged techniques mostly eschewed by modern films. The movie is shown in black-and-white. There is little or no score lazily tugging at our emotions. The shots are long (we often watch a character exit a room, and are left looking at the empty room for several seconds, listening for hints of what transpires beyond the closed door) and agnostic (no camera zooms to force our attention to tiny, important details). And, like a Greek play, much of the action occurs off-screen; the film concerns itself not with the action, but with the human responses to the action.

Though the movie is immersed in its characters, by its end I was (to my surprise) invested in uncovering the mystery of the various attacks. Not all questions are answered, and even some answers, relayed through gossip, are suspect. Nonetheless the ending is satisfying. I was rapt from start to finish and would gladly see this film again.


  1. I forgot to mention a freebie: a list of all the films currently playing at Landmark's five San Francisco theaters, and the showtimes for each. This is the only program I've seen to list the screen the film will show on (very useful for Opera Plaza).

  2. I just saw a review of this one... definitely want to see it.

  3. Er, prior to yours, that is. Now I definitely want to see it!