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

Thursday, March 25, 2010

44. Promised Lands

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts was built in 1993.  Strictly speaking it is not a movie theater, but it has a dedicated projection room, it shows movies, and is open to the public, so that counts in my book.  In my journey to visit one hundred theaters, I'm trying to get a sense of the diversity of viewing experiences available to us in the Bay Area, and certainly the YBCA offers diversity by being not just a movie theater, but also an art gallery and performing arts venue.

The YBCA shares the same block with Yerba Buena Gardens and the Metreon, and is right across the street from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (which also shows movies, and so will be seeing me soon).  It is easily accessible by a number of MUNI lines, and by the Montgomery BART station.

The YBCA has two buildings.  Stage performances occur in the building accessed from Howard St.; the screening room is located in the same building as the art gallery, accessed from the gardens (above) or Mission St. (below).

I'm going to go out on a limb and say the building falls within the Bauhaus style of architecture, with its minimal adornments and functional components (lobby = box + pillars + stairs).  It certainly looks clean, I'll give it that.  I'm not a big fan of this modern, industrial style, but neither do I dislike it.

Various tables in the lobby are covered with freebies, a few of which relate to film.  A tabloid-sized guide to their center has a section on upcoming film screenings.  Like the Pacific Film Archive Theater, the YBCA shows films in thematic groups, such as "The Word and the Image: Films by Marguerite Duras" (four films), and "Independent Inuit Film: The Fast Runner Trilogy" (three films).  Among the dance-related freebies I spotted a postcard for an upcoming performance at Dance Mission Theater (not a movie theater) by Double Vision, a performance group I've followed off and on now for several years.  I mention them not only because I enjoy their bizarre work, but because their work crosses over into the film medium on occasion.

The screening room is located on the second floor, and does not allow the taking of photographs.  Which is why I was chastised for this one (below).  The auditorium has just 84 seats, and they're not terribly comfortable.  The room is bare-bones, but it gets the job done.

Neither the YBCA nor the PFA have attractive auditoriums, but both screen films not available anywhere else.  What earns the PFA three stars, rather than the two I give to the YBCA, is the depth of its collection, and the frequency with which the theater makes that collection available to the public.  The YBCA shows films more as a recurring special event than as an ongoing commitment to the medium.



Promised Lands (1974)

Of everyone I know, I'd say I know the least about the conflict in the Middle East.  I've never taken a personal interest in the troubles of Palestinians or Israelis, or of their neighbors (except when we outright invade them), so I've never really paid attention.  Since my movie project is partly about broadening my theater horizons, I'm also using it to take in a wider variety of films than I might otherwise see.

In October, 1973, writer Susan Sontag went to Israel to document the Arab-Israeli war that begin on October 6 when Egypt and Syria invaded territory they had lost to Israel during the Six-Day War of 1967.  (Sounds a lot better than a Hundred Years' War.)  By her own account, Sontag attempts to "represent a condition, rather than an action", and to this end she conducts a few interviews, but mostly just sets up her camera and lets it roll.

Soldiers pack their bags, preparing to depart on old school buses, heading to the front lines.  Friends and family mourn at a mass service in a cemetery.  A man reads with disgust from an Arabic primary school text meant to instruct children on the lowliness of Jews.  Exhibits at a wax museum reenact the conflict (from the Jewish perspective) of the past seventy years.

Throughout the film we return to an interview with a man who recounts his perspective on the war.  He has fought in each incarnation of the war from the late forties until the late sixties, but now, feeling he is too old to fight, he instead wages war as an intellectual.  He recognizes that both sides, Arab and Jew, have legitimate claim to the land.  Of his own people he says, "We're intruders... an abscess in the Arab nation... that they have to get rid of... so they keep trying."  He draws parallels to an occupation the Arabs successfully repelled (the Crusaders), and one they did not (in Spain), and says the Jews want to be more like Spain, and dig their feet in.  In another contrast, he says that Shakespeare can entertain us with tragedy by killing everyone in the end, but "there's no solution to tragedy.  It works in theater but not in life."  A life in which "every few years you'll have a war and every few years a whole generation will be destroyed."

Sontag has attempted to be hands-off, yet every scene feels contrived.  She flashes images of a cross and a television antenna, one after the other, back to one, back to the other.  She cuts from a social scene at a church, with people milling about happily in their Saturday best, to the charred remains of a tank, abandoned on the side of a road, and a burned corpse face-up in the sand.  When a man herds goats in the distant hills we hear the ring of the church bells as if we were still in the city.  And while our eyes scan across the various people at the Wailing Wall, we hear one woman's plea in particular (though we never see her).  Sontag perhaps felt she was merely showing what she saw, but what I see is someone in an editing room trying to turn their mundane footage into art.  Her camera is too distant from the subject, never giving us access to the narrative of conflict, or to individual struggles.  Instead we watch lazily from the sidelines as unrelated images slide past.

The movie ends with a torturous scene in which a psychiatrist tries to reenact a shell-shocked patient's traumatic war experience.  The patient, having been drugged, cowers face-down on a bed, pulling a pillow over his head, while the psychiatrist and an orderly play sirens on a tape recorder, slam doors, bang on the mattress, and jostle the bed.  This goes on for-ev-er.  This scene must have lasted at least ten minutes and did nothing but test my patience and convince me that the psychiatrist is cruel.  However inept, the psychiatrist seems well intentioned.  I have no idea what Sontag hoped to accomplish with this scene other than make me dislike her.

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