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

Sunday, January 3, 2010

6. Broken Embraces

The Rafael Theatre
The Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center is a non-profit theater operated by the California Film Institute in San Rafael. The building has a bit of a turbulent structural past, which I'll summarize from Cinema Treasures. Built in 1918 as the single-screen Orpheus Theater, it was enlarged to a duplex in 1926. A 1937 fire damaged the building; when it reopened a year later the style had been updated from Victorian to Art Deco. After many decades as a second-run theater, it was again damaged in 1989 by the Loma Prieta Earthquake, remaining closed until 1999 when it was rebirthed as a three-screen theater showing independent film.

The lobby feels a bit like a museum, with white walls stretching down a hall to the Rafael 1 entrance, and up a curving staircase to the other two screens. At the concession stand you'll find postcard promos for upcoming films, a flier for yearly memberships (including reduced admission), and a wonderful tabloid-sized preview of upcoming films and other events.

As the host of the Mill Valley Film Festival (annually in October), the California Film Institute attracts not only independent film, but their film makers as well. From the preview paper and the pre-movie slideshow it looks like The Raphael is the place to be for rubbing shoulders with directors, actors, and writers, and learning about their craft.

The main screening room, behind a double-doored entrance, looks like it once had a balcony (claimed by the other two screens, I'm guessing). The seats are comfortable, with unique, classy wooden armrests and cup holders. Ornamentation can be seen all around the auditorium, including columns on either side of the screen. Like at The Lark, the curtains close and reopen just before the show.

On a personal note, just before arriving at the theater I swung by the house where my parents lived when I was born (at Kaiser Hospital in San Francisco) and spent the first six months of my life. One can still see, among other improvements, the glass decoration, encircling the frame of the front door, that my parents installed more than 30 years ago.


A Town Called Panic (Panique au village)
A French stop-motion-animated film that resembles the television comedy show Robot Chicken, in that the main characters are actual toys (or plasticine models meant to look like toys). The trailer is incomprehensible in terms of plot, which follows some sort of adventure of Indian, Cowboy, and Horse that takes them through a blizzard, flood, and to the center of the Earth and back. The trailer is amusing to watch, but doesn't exactly make me itch to see the film. I commend it for having subtitles; typically foreign trailers show only non-speaking moments, which means that rather than coming to the film knowing that its characters speak French, we're surprised that the characters speak at all. 46 cuts.

That Evening Sun
Hal Holbrook plays an aging widower who leaves a retirement home to return to his farm. When he arrives, he finds that his son has let the farm to a family of three. Holbrook takes up residence in a nearby shack, and tensions rise as Holbrook tries to reassert himself on the land, and the husband of the family tries to get him to leave. Looks to be a tense, well-acted film that is content to quietly let us watch events unfold, perhaps to a violent conclusion. 92 cuts.

The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond
Despite the iconic stature of Tennessee Williams as an American playwright, I have had very little exposure to his work. I've read portions of The Glass Menagerie for a theater class, and seen The Rose Tattoo performed; that sums it up. This upcoming film, written for the screen by Williams in the 1950s, stars Bryce Dallas Howard as a rebellious heiress who begins to attend public functions with the poor Chris Evans in tow, much to the detriment of her social standing. She's fairly flippant with him, exploiting his station for shock value, but begins to fall for him in ernest when his attentions go toward another. The attraction between Howard and Evans is not fanning any fires in my heart, but the costumes and locations (set in the 1920's South) are lavish and fun. 73 cuts.

Broken Embraces (Los Abrazos Rotos)
Middle-aged Harry Caine (Lluís Homar) is a well-known, blind screenwriter. With the help of his agent, Judit (Blanca Portillo), and her adult son, Diego (Tamar Novas), Harry endures daily life and toils with his craft. He has his share of pleasurable pursuits, but through voiceover we learn that at an earlier point in Harry's life, when he still had sight, he experienced a greater joy than is now possible for him.

This latest work from Pedro Almodóvar (Volver, Hable con ella) is exceptional. From the opening shot of a reflection in a human eye, to the very end, every moment is interesting and meaningful. Harry Caine, as a writer, likes to tell stories; we experience these as characters telling tales to each other, collaborating on stories, and watching other characters on film.

Much of the movie takes place in the past, centered around a film Harry was making with an amateur actress, Lena (Penélope Cruz), and under the intrusive gaze of Lena's lover, Ernesto (José Luis Gómez). Ernesto is a jealous, aging tycoon who is producing Harry's film as a way to keep an eye on Lena. Ernesto's son (Rubén Ochandiano) follows Lena with a camera, under the pretense of creating a documentary, but the daily tapes go directly to his father, who pores over them each night, looking for the slightest indiscretion between Lena and Harry.

Rather than being in service of the plot, each character appears to be on their own trajectory, with their own motivation; the film is our window to the violent mixture of incompatible desires. I cared equally for the relationships in Harry's past as in his present, and with the exception of Ernesto's overly-flamboyant son, each character plays their part with intense but subtle emotion.

At one point in the film our characters examine the contrast in tone and believability between different takes of their movie. A single take, with all its imperfections, can be smoothed over if surrounded by an otherwise exceptional film. But these flawed moments are disastrous in aggregate. With Broken Embraces, Almodóvar has demonstrated the counter example, that although a well-acted moment could be lost within a mediocre movie, when followed in rapid succession by other sincere, nuanced slivers of time, the result is gripping.


  1. Your mother and I went to many movies at the Rafael. I started teaching at Redwood High School in Larkspur in January of 1968. We were married a few months later (April 6, 1968). One of the first movies I remember seeing at the Rafael was "100 Rifles" with Raquel Welch, Jim Brown and Burt Reynolds. I think this was in 1969. I remember this movie because the theater management was turning away teenagers because of the sexy outdoor shower scene Raquel Welch was in. It probably showed her bare shoulders! My how times have changed. We moved into our house on Bayview Street that you have pictured above in 1970. Love, Dad