I have a soft spot for Albert Lewin, a literary Hollywood writer/producer turned director with a continental sensibility an eye for handsome imagery (if not always cinematic storytelling). His productions tended toward literary adaptations (The Good Earth, 1937, which he produced, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1945, which he scripted and directed) but Pandora and the Flying Dutchman(Kino) is an original script (“suggested by the Legend of the Flying Dutchman,” in the words of the credits) reverberating with mythological themes, literary and classical references and a Hemingway-esque atmosphere of the lost generation of idle wealthy Europeans in early thirties Spain.
All of the men in the tale are in thrall to Pandora (Ava Gardner), a beautiful American nightclub singer who has come to Esperanza, Spain, via London, and spurns the attentions of her admirers with a mix of cruelty and ennui. Then she is drawn to the mysterious ship anchored in the bay and meets the ageless Renaissance man Hendrik (James Mason), a haunted loner whose story is the stuff of legends, and becomes captivated by this mystery man who seems to know her yet makes no advances.
I love the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for a lot of reasons. This is just one of many, but one that defines the spirit of the festival.
Fernando Martín Peña spent twenty years trying to track down the holy grail that was the complete, long though lost Metropolis. In collaboration with Paula Felix Didier, director of Museo del Cine, Buenos Aires, they found it, confirmed its authenticity and contacted the Murnau Foundation, which had undertaken the task to reconstructing the original version. It was only one of many elements that went into the definitive version now making the rounds in festivals and cinemateques around the world (lost footage was also recently discovered in a New Zealand archive, and in better condition than the Argentinean print), but it was the essential missing link that provided not just footage unavailable in any form elsewhere, but an invaluable guide to the artists, historians and technicians doing the physical work of restoring and reconstructing the definitive version.
And yet he had not seen the finished restoration until its screening at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
There’s a real charge to the cinema of Michael Powell, a joy in the play of expressionist possibilities of the medium, that lights up his films with energy, color, and magic—the magic of love and life and art. That invention and play with cinematic technique sounds like another British director with great directorial control and imagination, Alfred Hitchcock, yet they couldn’t be more different. The unbridled imagination of Powell’s direction (especially in partnership with his creative partner, Emeric Pressberger, who Powell shared director credit with even though his contributions are largely in the writing and producing arenas) feels like an impish schoolboy running wild through the traditions of British cinema, finding ways to give us the subjective experience of his characters, letting the emotions overflow in explosions of cinematic excitement. (It’s no wonder that Scorsese responded to Powell so powerfully; at his best, Scorsese strives for the same kind of subjective perspective with his own style and sensibility.)
Yet where Hitchcock is celebrated by people who couldn’t tell you the name of even one of his films, Powell remains a cult director beloved by cineastes but known to the world at large mostly for the lush, lavishly realized The Red Shoes. To girls of a certain age and a predisposition to the romance and beauty of ballet, this film is a touchstone that remains an impassioned favorite long after their invitation to the dance is over. For me, it’s a film of dark fantasy, romantic passion and an infectious love of dance, music and cinema. In 2009, The Red Shoes was restored from scratch and the print premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. This is what Criterion used for their new, freshly remastered edition, on DVD and making its debut on Blu-ray.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the biggest and most well-curated silent film festival in the United States, celebrates its 15th edition by adding a day of screenings, opening Thursday, July 15 with a screening of John Ford’s The Iron Horse (from Dennis James’ personal 35mm print) and then launching into the weekend with the Friday evening screenings of Rotaie (1929), a late silent from Italy, and the newly restored Metropolis (1927), in a digital presentation with accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra, all at the historic Castro Theatre (in this case, historic also mean no air conditioning, so attendees are dressing in layers and watching the weather).
Where Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi found international recognition with historical adventures and elegant period dramas about samurai warriors, royal figures, and fallen heroes, Ozu exclusively made contemporary films. His quietly understated family dramas and comedies take place in the modest homes and workplaces of everyday citizens trying to make a life for themselves and their children. His films are a veritable survey of Japanese society from the late 1920s to the early 1960s, a society straddling an age-old culture of expectations and codes of conduct on the one hand, and the stresses and demands of the modern world and its international influences on the other. The homes of our characters are models of simplicity and austerity, but just outside their windows are the smokestacks of industrial factories, roofs decorated with TV aerials, and webs of power lines and telephone poles hanging across the sky. These are the elements most often featured in his famous “pillow shots,” glimpses of the world around his characters which “cushion” the space between scenes which are among the most beautiful still life moments seen in 20th century cinema.
This is the first screen incarnation of the story of jazz baby murderess Roxie Hart, first created in a play by former crime reporter Maurine Watkins that hit Broadway in 1926. Ginger Rogers played her in the William Wellman-directed Roxie Hart, which took the sex and cynicism right out of it, and of course it was turned into the Broadway musical that was brought to the screen in the 2002 Oscar winner. This version, produced (and in part directed) by Cecil B. DeMille, had been all but forgotten in the meantime, at least until a print was found in Cecil B. DeMilleâ€™s private collection, but even after select festival showings it’s still largely unknown. Hopefully this Flicker Alley DVD release will help take care of that.
Former Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty Phyllis Haver is Roxie, the bleached blond jazz baby of an unfaithful wife who plugs her wealthy lover (Eugene Palette) and tells her blindly adoring hubby Amos (Victor Varconi, an all-American type in the Joel McCrea mode) that it was burglar. Unlike future incarnations, this Amos is no sap, merely deluded by love, but his illusions are quickly shattered when he recognizes the dead man and finds one of her garters in his pocket. And as the press turns it into a front page scandal turned salacious soap opera, with Roxie as the willing star, the femme fatale playing the victimized innocent with all the subtlety of a second rate stage diva playing Victorian melodrama, Amos is the hero of the piece if only for his loyalty and sacrifice. Everyone elseâ€”from Roxie to the press to the assistant D.A.â€”simply uses the murder for their own notoriety with mercenary focus.
You’ve read the essays, now see the films. My post-script to the Sam Peckinpah series is a survey of Peckinpah on DVD and Blu-ray, with notes on print and mastering quality and details on supplements (where applicable). And with so many of Peckinpah’s films released in compromised versions and later reconstructed or amended with restored footage, I’ve also provided a guide through the incarnations available.
Consider this your guide to the Sam Peckinpah canon on home video (U.S. DVD releases only).
Sam Peckinpah began his career on television, writing scripts for numerous western shows (including numerous episodes of Gunsmoke) and creating a couple of landmark shows, and moved into the director’s chair with an episode of Broken Arrow in 1958. That show is not on DVD, nor are any of his most significant original TV plays—”Pericles on 31st Street” (1962) and “The Losers” (1963), both made for The Dick Powell Show, and “Noon Wine” (1966), shot on videotape for ABC Stage 67—or any episodes of The Westerner, arguably his greatest TV creation. Here’s what is available:
The Rifleman (1960) (MPI)
“The Marshal” (Season One, Ep. 4), “The Boarding House” (Season One, Ep. 22), “The Money Gun” (Season One, Ep. 33),“The Baby Sitter” (Season Two, Ep. 12)
Sam Peckinpah wrote “The Sharpshooter” for Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater, which became the pilot for The Rifleman (and rebroadcast as the first episode of the new series). MPI released 120 episodes of the half-hour western series over the six collections, not necessarily in order and certainly not comprehensive, but all of Peckinpah’s episodes are included. The single-disc “The Rifleman: Volume 1” (which was subsequently collected in the four-disc “The Rifleman: Boxed Set Collection 1”) features the Peckinpah-scripted pilot “Sharpshooter” and second episode “Home Ranch” along with “The Marshal,” the first episode of the show that he directed. “The Money Gun” (Season One, Ep. 33) is on “The Rifleman: Volume 2” (also collected in “The Rifleman: Boxed Set Collection 1”). “The Boarding House” is included in “The Rifleman: Boxed Set Collection 2” and “The Baby Sitter” is in “The Rifleman: Boxed Set Collection 3.” The MPI collections are no longer in print but feature good quality editions of the episodes and they may found for purchase used or for rent at your more auteur-oriented video stores, and these episodes are also available in the 16-disc/80-episode “The Rifleman Mega Pack,” the quality of which I cannot comment upon. Keep Reading
I know that the special effect-laden sci-fi extravaganzas and action epics are what really drive home theater sales, with fans wanting to get theatrical presentation muscle into their home. But that’s all about showmanship (not that there’s anything wrong with that). What really sends me to heaven is watching a presentation of a cinema masterwork with the clarity, richness and integrity of a perfect 35mm presentation. Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), quite simply one of my all time favorite films, is one of those masterworks and Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition (freshly mastered from a stunning print with unparalleled color and crispness) is as perfect a home video incarnation as anyone could hope for and better than any theatrical screening I’ve have the pleasure to experience.
I believe that Visconti’s 1963 adaptation of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel is his masterpiece. Burt Lancaster (his voice is dubbed by a deep-voiced Italian) may seem an unusual choice to play Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, an idealistic 19th century Sicilian prince (Visconti favored Laurence Olivier, a much more conventionally regal choice), but his confidence, his gravitas, and his understated cat-like grace as he walks through the world as if he owned it, creates a character of great authority and even greater melancholy. With the impoverished island nation of Sicily on the verge of revolutionary change and reform, Salina places his hope in this revolution to wipe away the corrupt ruling aristocracy (of which he is himself a member) and his upstart nephew Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon), who fights for a unified Italy with Garibaldi’s Red Shirts. “For things to remain the same, everything must change,” proclaims Tancredi as he sets off to join the revolution. Salina is publicly against the war but privately sympathetic and he sees Tancredi as the future of this country, or at least of his family, which is mired in a sinkhole of decadence and irrelevance.
The color debut of Michelangelo Antonioni continues his exploration into the cinema of alienation with a new dimension. And it’s not just the expanded palette, which he paints in the colors of waste. This drama of dislocation and neurosis is set against an industrial landscape where the rivers are choked black and oily with pollution, the barren lots around factories are dead, gray graveyards of junk and ash and waste, the horizon is made up of smokestacks belching smoke and flames and even the parks hiss smoke from pipes running under the sod.
Giuliana (Monica Vitti, Antonioni’s great muse) navigates this world tenuously, a fragile woman in a world where the detritus of industry has almost eradicated the natural world. Richard Harris (his voice dubbed into Italian) is a visiting corporate recruiter who becomes infatuated with the beautiful but nervous wife of his colleague. There’s a flirtation of sorts, but it’s as emotionally smothered as the industrial world around them.
[parts of this were originally published in the Seattle Weekly, February 24, 1999]
In 1989 in Tehran, a movie mad unemployed printer named Ali Sabzian was arrested for impersonating the famous film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The family he had fooled was deep in rehearsals for his next “film” when they alerted authorities of their suspicions. “I loved playing that part,” confesses Sabzian in his trial. When the judge asks the Ahankah family if they will drop the charges in light of Sabzian’s apologies and explanations, one of the sons replies “I get the impression he’s still playing a role.”
These moments from the documented trial resonate through Close-Up, Abbas Kiarostami’s 1989 film of the event. Kairostami, best known to American audiences for Through the Olive Treesand the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winning A Taste of Cherry, read about the story in the papers and convinced Sabzian and the Ahankah family to play themselves in a dramatic recreation. The case itself is hardly sensationalistic. Sabzian met Mrs. Ahankah on a bus and passed himself off as Makhmalbaf (the scene is recreated by the participants in the middle of the film and establishes an unusual bond between the two—when the police come to arrest him in a later recreation she steps up to stop them). It’s simple bit of role playing that Sabzian pushes into an elaborate charade when he proposes that the family act in his next film and becomes a frequent visitor to their house. Intercut with these extended scenes is the documentary record of the real trial (which Kiarostami convinced the judge to let him not only film but in some ways shape for the camera) and a series of on-camera interviews. What emerges isn’t so much a merging of the two forms as an inquiry into the very nature of cinematic representation.
Konrad Wolf’s Divided Heaven (1964), his adaptation of the novel by Christa Wolf (no relation), was made during the brief “thaw” of the sixties, when socially daring and politically critical films were allowed to be produced. I find it amazing it got made at all even in that relatively tolerant period, where the degree of freedom can be considered lenient only in comparison to the restrictions of the past (and, as it turned out, the near future). Renate Blume stars in the coming of age film set in 1950s East Germany and she’s introduced in a state of crippling depression, suffering from “nervous break,” according to the doctor. “Thus begins our story,” informs the narrator, making this the narrative baseline: not the ideals of socialism in action, but the disillusionment of a once idealistic young woman.
The flashbacks take us through a whirlwind romance with Manfred (Eberhard Esche), an ambitious (and older) chemical engineer with a great future and high hopes, and her own “promotion” to a teaching college (and the attendant party meetings that will ultimately pass judgment on herâ€”and everyone else’sâ€”commitment to the socialist ideals). While she takes a summer position building railroad cars, she watches the veteran socialist true believer, both an idealist and a realist, scapegoated for production problems and replaced by a young manager who comes in brimming with socialist slogans but little understanding of humans under pressure. Meanwhile Manfred watches science takes a back seat to politics and becomes increasingly cynical about the ideals he once embraced.
Seattle International Film Festival audiences bestowed top Golden Space Needle Awards on The Hedgehog, Winter’s Bone and Cell 211 (among others) while juried awards singled out The Reverse and Marwencol at the awards brunch of the Seattle International Film Festival this morning.
But before we get into the lists of winners, here’s a few SIFF 2010 statistics:
Every year, SIFF programmers open the press launch with the usual proclamation: this year is the biggest and best SIFF ever. Whether or not you agree with the latter, it was certainly big: 408 features and shorts in 25 days, according to the press release, with 73 premieres and more than 600 screenings and evens (I’m trusting their numbers here, so if you have a different count, take it up with SIFF).
According to SIFF’s press release, it’s also their most successful in terms of ticket sales and attendance. To quote the press release, this year’s festival “broke box office records with a nearly 20% increase in box office, making it SIFF’s most triumphant year to date.” They also cite more than 125 sold-out events.
It’s hard to argue with numbers like thatâ€”Seattle audiences love their festival and SIFF has what I believe to be the best and most loyal local turnout of any major film festivalâ€”and it was certainly the year to make such a leap, with the multiplex box office in the doldrums and the dreariest late spring weather Seattle weather of recent memory. The two lonely sunny days amidst the rain and clouds and cold only served to drive us back into the theaters once the sun went back into hibernation.
But this kind of ambition comes with a cost. This year it was very apparent to me that the festival staff was spread pretty thin. Every festival faces problems with prints that arrive late, in a compromised condition (like missing or damaged reels) or not at all; with format issues (a major concern with the explosion in digital filmmaking and projection and the lack of a single digital playback standard); with focus and sound problems and the like. This year I attended fewer screenings than in past years and yet faced more problems (most of them minor, admittedly) than I can ever recall. In the case of missing prints and substitutions, the SIFF staff was invariably forthcoming and communicative about the issues and the solutions for the evening and they became more adept at alerting audiences even before they filed into their seats. But it all seemed to happen more often this year. At least for the events I attended.
Hipsters (Russia, dir: Valery Todorovsky) – In 1955 Moscow, where the Soviet citizenry fills the streets in a palette of industrial blue, black and gray, a group of culture rebels parade about in rainbow colors that in America would be crimes against fashion—a cacophony of plaids and checks, greens and yellows and purples and other garishly clashing colors—and commit something much more daring: crimes against conformity. They are the self-defined “hipsters,” dancing to swing and small combo dance bands in fashions that defies the uniformity of the Soviet ideal. “I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t want to live like everyone else,” smiles the youth commissar of conformity, who proclaims that “Every hipster is a potential criminal.” Mels (Anton Shagin, who comes off as a wide-eyed Neil Patrick Harris) is part of the conformist army until he switches allegiances for the best of possible reasons: a girl, Polly (Oksana Akinshina). Mels dons the Soviet answer to a zoot suit, hits the Broadway scene and is rechristened Mel (in the Yankee-ization that all hipsters undergo), the newest member of the swing cat underground.
A musical (where they do indeed break into song and dance, evoking the mechanization of the industrial revolution when it’s the plebian citizens doing the honors but exploding in the plumage of mating birds when the dances erupt in the club setttings), a coming-of-age tale and an adventure in youthful rebellion, Hipsters (from Emerging Master Valery Todorovksy) is a bright blast of underground culture and expressions of individuality in a society where rebels are regularly jailed for much less. The eye-gouging color, flamboyant fashion, pompadours and curls and appropriated style is not just a fashion statement, it’s a cry of individualism and freedom in a country where “kowtowing to western ideology is punishable by up to ten years” and “a saxophone is considered a concealed weapon.” (And what about owning banned music, which here is copied and passed around on pirate discs cut into the remnants of old X-rays sheets?) It’s also a warped mirror reflection of what these soviet youths imagine American culture is like from the snatched glimpses and slivers of artifacts gleaned from between the cracks of the Iron Curtain, a recreation at least ten years out of date and exaggerated to hyperbolic extremes. Which, in a very real way, ultimately makes this a uniquely Soviet rebel culture. The drama itself is much more conventional, with kids forced to choose between their rebel identities and donning the costume of conformity for advancement, marriage, parenthood and responsibility, all of it essentially hurdled in a song to embrace the happy ending. But the story of Hipsters is less in the narrative than the evocation of this underground culture, in both the texture of realistic detail and expressionist song and dance sequences. And if you think you recognize Polly (“Good Time Polly to those who know”), it’s not just the American affection; she starred as Lilya in Lukas Moodyson’s Lilya 4-Ever.
Bob Hope: Thanks For the Memories Collection (Universal)
Bob Hope was the snappy urban wiseguy with an easy line of smart remarks and a comic cowardice behind the confident front, a one-liner comic whose timing, self-effacing demeanor and audience rapport took him from stage to radio to screen. This collection mostly revisits the younger Hope, before he hit the road with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour and slid into a more cynical byplay. Hope is funny in those films, but he’s much more likable in the four earlier films of the set, three of them making their respective DVD debuts. Thanks for the Memory (1938), named after the Hope signature song (which he sings with co-star Shirley Ross), is a slim little comedy of the idle class in depression-era New York notable largely for Hope’s easy banter and the cast of moochers who keep landing in his apartment.
The heart of the set, however, belongs to his three pairing with Paulette Goddard, beginning with the oft-filmed haunted house chestnut The Cat and the Canary (1939). You know the story even if you’ve never seen the play: the family of the deceased gather in a spooky old mansion of an eccentric millionaire for the reading of the will and must spend the night in the place (which is located in the middle of a bayou swamp). Goddard is the bubbly heroine who is named sole beneficiary, a spooky servant goes around predicting things like “One will die tonight” and there’s an escaped patient from the nearby asylum (in the middle of this swamp?) running around. “Don’t big old empty houses scare you?” asks one relative (Nydia Westman doing a Zasu Pitts kind of goofy comic relief). “Not me,” quips Hope, here playing a semi-famous actor meeting what’s left of his family tree. “I’ve played vaudeville.” It’s hokey stuff with hidden doors and secret passages and a hidden treasure, which director Elliot Nugent stages with all the style and tension of a sitcom. But Hope and Goddard have marvelous chemistry and Hope is completely amiable, using wisecracks to cover up his discomfort and fear. “I always joke when I’m scared,” he confesses to heroine Goddard. “I kind of kid myself into being brave.” Hope’s delivery makes this less a laugh line than a confession and a promise; he’s got integrity and the courage to both reveal his vulnerabilities and overcome them. Goddard, meanwhile, is a spunky beauty with crack timing, a born comedienne too often called upon to play the straight man and provide the sex appeal. She does both admirably in Cat and was rewarded with a return engagement with Hope.
Centurion (UK, dir/scr: Neil Marshall) — “My name is Quintus Dias and this is neither the beginning nor the end of my story.” With Michael Fassbender (crisply stalwart in Inglorious Basterds and hauntingly resolute in Hunger) as a loyal and valiant Roman Centurion and Neil Marshall (the once and future hope of savagely smart British genre cinema, thanks to Dog Soldiers and The Descent) writing and directing, I had great expectations for this Romans versus Barbarians warrior epic turned survival thriller. Set on 117 A.D., twenty years into the Roman invasion of Britain, as the guerrilla tactics of the Picts have stymied the Roman incursion into the northern highlands, it’s basically a lost platoon adventure with Fessbender as a bloodied but unbowed soldier trying to lead a small group of survivors from a brutally effective ambush back to safety. In other words, a classic Marshall set-up: a handful of professionals fighting off an attack from greater numbers or overwhelming power. Former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko glowers and slinks as a mute Pict scout and tracker who relentlessly hunts them through the dramatic landscape, looking less like a warrior queen than a 1st century cover girl, and Dominic West is the macho General Virilus (Marshall’s tribute to Life of Brian‘s Biggus Dickus?) who gets to be all tortured martyr as he passes the torch to Quintus: “Get them home!”
Based on a 2,000-year-old legend (according the disclaimer at the end of the film), it’s brawny stuff, part The Naked Prey and part ancient The Lost Patrol, with great use of fog and dramatic landscapes and lots of bloody, brutal combat. Would that it had characters to match, or a story as interesting as its inspiration. Fessbender is all soldier and stalwart dignity—he even says “Fuck” with class (and he does so a lot)—but doesn’t have a personality to speak of, and while the obligatory scene when the men all swap names and backstories may have been Marshall’s tribute to the scores of platoon movies before it, it simply plays as lazy exposition. The men get lost in the muddy palette of earth tones (which in this case are brown, green and fog… lots of fog) and the staccato strobe-vision of battle scenes that simply confuses the action, and the story along with it.