SIFF 2010: Truly Golden Oldies

[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, May 19, 2010]

Hand me a film festival catalogue and the first thing I’m going to look for is the archival stuff.

It’s not just that the odds (and classical discipline) favor an older movie being better than a new one. A lot of worthy films have never received their just due, or have dropped out of circulation. Some have been given up as lost: no prints or negative known to survive.

Still, miracles happen. Some “lost” films have been sitting in the studio vaults all along, in mislabeled cans. Or a print may turn up in a Mittel-European or South American archive, its title translated into something unrecognizable. And sometimes people — whose grandfather used to be a projectionist, say — find the darnedest things sitting forgotten in the attic.

Festival screenings are often the best opportunities we’ll ever have to catch up with such movies. They also offer the chance to watch restorations of movies we’ve seen, but seen only in cut or bashed-up or dupe prints, or via improperly formatted TV or home-video presentations. And don’t shortchange the privilege of encountering them on the big, communal screen they were intended for.

In a spirit of “celebrating the landmark films that continue to shape our cinematic future,” SIFF 2010 is presenting nine vintage feature films, two documentary looks into movie history and three silent pictures with live musical accompaniment.

The doc programs are How Sex Sold Hollywood (at SIFF Cinema this coming Tuesday, May 25, 7 p.m.) and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Inferno” (June 1, 7 p.m., Harvard Exit). Sex is actually a live-action presentation (not to be confused with sex show) by Seattle U. prof James Forsher incorporating filmed materials. Inferno resurrects a lost film that was never quite made: a 1964 psychological suspense thriller from the director of Diabolique, who was felled by a heart attack in mid-production.

The rara avis among the silents is the 1931 A Spray of Plum Blossoms from China, directed by Bu Wancang and billed as “a comedy of manners based on Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Donald Sosin will provide piano accompaniment, 4:30 p.m. May 30, SIFF Cinema. The 1925 version of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, starring Tom Mix, plays at 7 & 9:30 p.m. this Tuesday, May 25, at the Triple Door, musically supported by The Maldives. Stuart Paton and Allen Holubar’s 1916 version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea comes to the Paramount on June 9, buoyed by Stephen Merritt of The Magnetic Fields.

The features, all at the Harvard Exit, include three films to be shown as part of the citywide Seattle Celebrates Bernstein — composer Leonard, that is: the Gene Kelly–Stanley Donen MGM musical classic On the Town (this Sunday at 1:30 p.m.) and two Oscar-winners, Elia Kazan’s powerhouse drama On the Waterfront (1:30 p.m. May 30) and West Side Story (1:15 p.m. June 6). For less familiar material, check out two recent restorations of works by Polish director Jerzy Kawalerowicz, the 1959 psychological thriller Night Train (Polish noir? … 1:45 p.m. this Saturday, May 22) and Mother Joan of the Angels? (1 p.m. May 29), a take on the 1634 “devils of Loudun” horrorshow later addressed by Ken Russell in The Devils.

All good news (and an overall improvement on SIFF’s archival record in recent years), but the biggest thrill for me is the 20th-anniversary tribute to the Film Foundation, the nonprofit founded by Martin Scorsese and others to preserve and restore cinema’s perishable artifacts. As demonstrated by a recent evening’s Turner Classic Movies tribute to the foundation — which began with a literally incandescent restoration of The Red Shoes — there can be a gulf between even decent prints of classic films and the true glory of what first hit theater screens decades ago. The Film Foundation exerts every effort to bring back that glory.

The first foundation program won’t be incandescent, except perhaps emotionally: it’s John Cassavetes’ landmark, no-budget 1959 debut Shadows, playing this Saturday, May 22, at 1:45 p.m. Set in the Manhattan jazz world of the day, this black-and-white, largely improvised, musically structured narrative explores the hopes and distractions of African-American siblings variously feeling out and fleeing from their racial identity.

The remaining Film Foundation offerings are all in vibrant Technicolor: Senso, a 1954 Luchino Visconti extravaganza of doomed love in 19th-century Venice (1 p.m. May 29); Jean Renoir’s spiritually transcendent The River, shot in India in 1951 (1:30 p.m. June 5); and Drums Along the Mohawk (1:30 p.m., June 12), John Ford’s first picture in color and merely the third-greatest movie he made in 1939 (the others were Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln). More about these as the weeks go by. But prepare to exit glowing.