Feast of British feature films

  • by Erin Blackwell
  • Tuesday February 10, 2015
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The English are not as stupid as Americans. Or do I mean simplistic? After centuries of being overrun and overrunning others, the English have made an art of ignoring how nasty they really are, encouraging others also not to notice. This art, with hypocrisy at its heart, takes many forms. Satire, irony, toffee, the class system, racism, cream teas, misogyny, one-upmanship, the snub, the Queen, stiff upper lip, or blatant thuggery, these we associate with the British. To properly relish the many variations of these martial tactics deployed in social combat, get a $100 pass to the Mostly British Film Festival, running February 12-22 at the intimate, historic Vogue Theatre in SF.

Americans, being more simple-minded than the British, still experience nostalgic pangs of yearning for the monarchy we gloriously overthrew on July 4, 1776. This paradox is rarely questioned, least of all by those in a tea-fueled stupor, curled up with an Agatha Christie while the world goes to Hell. Yet Christie herself was an unfailing critic of the criminals who used the tatty veil of Empire's well-worn trappings to cover up their crimes. As we Americans awake to the decline of our own Empire, which we didn't even know we had until it was past saving, we realize there were warnings aplenty in British films. They're so damn clever, we failed to take them seriously.

Our Man in Havana (1959) is such a film. Graham Greene wrote the screenplay, based on his 1958 novel, a send-up of bureaucratic British spycraft doubling as a takedown of the James Bond School of Weaponized Glamor. The fantasy plot, featuring genius Alec Guinness as a vacuum-cleaner salesman paid by the British government to surveil a Cuban missile crisis of his own imagining, is anchored in a well-felt narrative about regular people trying to cope with a world bent on self- and other- destruction. A thinly disguised primer on the acid rain of geopolitics, this parody can be enjoyed on several levels at once. Director Carol Reed, whose film of Greene's The Third Man (1949) serves as a tragic bookend, applies worldly-wise acuity and cinematic flair to a knock-out cast: Noel Coward, Burl Ives, Ernie Kovacs, Maureen O'Hara. Noel is superbly fatuous as the spy-runner unable to distinguish a vacuum cleaner from a nuclear installation. Must see. Must read. (Fri., Feb. 13, at 9 p.m.)

Malcolm McDowell stars as schoolboy Mick Travis in If (1968).

The festival's honoree is none other than Malcolm McDowell, that awful hooligan from A Clockwork Orange. Or should I say that awfully cute hooligan? McDowell's round face and features were a useful mask for a performer often called on to incarnate the ambivalence of Evil in a time of social breakdown. The actor appears in person at the Century Club, to chat about his work before a screening of Time After Time (1979), in which H.G. Wells chases Jack the Ripper up and down our own dear San Francisco, courtesy of a malfunctioning Time Machine. (Fri., Feb. 20, at 6 p.m.) Festival tsarina Ruthe Stein has also cannily programmed Lindsay Anderson's If (1968), a film channeling that revolutionary year's most anarchistic strivings through the hothouse of a British public school. McDowell's screen debut won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. (Sat., Feb. 21, at 11 a.m.)

If all you want is to forget your troubles, rather than be forced to reflect on them, the ticket for you is a Jessie Matthews matinee on Valentine's Day. Matthews was a huge star in the 1930s, starting as Gertrude Lawrence's understudy onstage before sliding over to the screen for a series of lavish musicals along the lines of early Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell vehicles. We don't have performers like this anymore, able to sing like a bird, dance like a panther, slither around in dazzling evening gowns, playing comedy with wit and poise. There was no American equivalent, except maybe Josephine Baker. Matthews embodies a bygone form of theatrical art, somewhere between Music Hall and Folies Bergere, at once rarified and accessible, in which erotic magnetism combines with purity of heart in a mind-jiggling display of infectious joie de vivre. She famously dances on the ceiling in Evergreen (1934), considered the U.K.'s greatest film musical. (Sat., Feb. 14, at 11 a.m.) First a Girl (1935), tediously remade for Julie Andrews as Victor, Victoria (1982), was itself based on the superior German original, Viktor und Viktoria (1933). In any language, it's a travesty! (Sat., Feb. 14, at 1 p.m.)


Vogue Theatre, 3290 Sacramento St., SF. Tickets ($12.50/$10): mostlybritish.org.