A quick synopsis of La Sapienza suggests the possibility of an eye-pleasing excursion into la dolce vita, a heaping helping of architecture and Italy served with a nice Chianti. We meet a slightly uneasy middle-aged couple, Alexandre (Fabrizio Rongione, the patient husband in Two Days, One Night) and Aliénor (Christelle Prot Landman). He’s a well-known architect—brilliant, but over-rational—while she practices some hybrid of sociology and psychology. A chance encounter with teenage siblings Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) and Lavinia (Arianna Nastro) leads them to separate for a few days. Goffredo is an architecture student and accompanies Alexandre to Rome, the better to learn about the Baroque splendors of buildings designed by Borromini; Aliénor opts to stay behind in Switzerland and tend to Lavinia, whose dizzy spells are incapacitating.
[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]
The best fight sequences in Chang Cheng Ho’s otherwise unremarkable Five Fingers of Death (1971) pit various trim, clean-featured young Chinese boxers against the most outlandishly lethal trio of killers I’ve ever hated myself for loving to watch. Lanky, slack-limbed, sullen and arrogant-looking youths they are, with mops of very long, disheveled hair and an insouciant manner out of which flowers without warning that bafflingly beautiful series of swift karate movements for which they have been hired—out of Japan—by a deep-dyed Chinese bad guy named Meng. Invincible Boxer was the movie’s original title. But these three imported killing machines are the ones who appear invincible, not the bland Chinese hero of the title. Still, a Chinese audience knows the foreigners mustn’t really be invincible; and of course all three eventually do hit the dust and the audience goes home satisfied.
SIFF more than doubled its archival programming this year, bring a record 19 archival films and programs to the festival this year. The backbone of the archivals this year is a program celebrating the 25th anniversary of Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation. Eight films restored by The Film Foundation play SIFF, and another four will screen at The Paramount Theatre’s Silent Movie Mondays through June.
The Film Foundation screenings, all from 35mm film prints, are almost all done. Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes, which was scheduled for the first weekend of SIFF, had to be cancelled after the screening had begun due to projection problems. Word is that the festival programmers are working to get a new screening scheduled. Meanwhile there is one Film Foundation restoration still on the schedule: Alyam, Alyam (1978), from Morocco, is set to play on June 7 at 4:30pm at SIFF Film Center.
Unconnected with The Film Foundation anniversary was The Son of the Sheik (1926), one of the first genuine movie sequels. It was also the last film that Rudolph Valentino made—he died shortly before its premier. He plays two roles in the tongue-in-cheek Arabian swashbuckler, both father (under a distinguished beard and a stern, serious expression) and son, the former now a responsible leader of his people and the latter a wild young man—just like his father was at his age. The double-exposure camera effects that put father and son together, fighting side-by-side in the climactic swordfight, are seamless, a reminder that the art and craft of Hollywood filmmaking in the silent era was top notch. The Alloy Orchestra played a lively live score, with bongos and congas setting the scene and a bit of accordion and clarinet added to the synthesizer melodies, which in Alloy fashion stand in for flutes, bass, and pretty much the rest of the orchestral colors.
[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]
The same cramped space and abundance of facial closeups that Bergman used in Cries and Whispers dominate his latest film as well. In Scenes from a Marriage we are only infrequently offered relief from the claustrophobic intimacy resulting from Bergman’s preoccupation with the faces of Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson. Indeed, at least one critic has commented on Bergman’s spare use of open exterior shots, without really delineating the analogy between the camera’s increasing freedom of movement as the movie progresses and the freedom gained by Johan and Marianne in their relationship. Their liaison becomes less one-sided and more of a healthy, complementary give-and-take union in which neither is forced into a role he or she may not be willing to assume—Johan as the dominant male whose efforts to initiate sex are often met with less than enthusiasm, Marianne as domestically submissive female (that she has a law career doesn’t seem to substantially alter this self-concept) who defines her life in terms of Johan’s. These are the very roles they play at the beginning of the movie during the interview with the journalist where all Marianne has to say is that she is his wife. In fact, it is not until the final segment of the film (“In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World”) that Bergman literally opens up in the way he makes use of space within the frame.
I credit Kevin Brownlow for my passion for silent movies. I studied silent cinema in college film classes in the 1980s, viewed from 16mm classroom prints. I admired the era but, apart from Chaplin and Keaton and a few choice dramas, I never really embraced it as a unique form of storytelling. Then I saw Brownlow’s 1983 documentary The Unknown Chaplin and read his invaluable book “The Parade’s Gone By.” They helped me appreciate the beauty and expressiveness of silent storytelling.
Since then I’ve seen numerous silent film that Brownlow helped restore through Photoplay Productions (which helped me really see and appreciate the films on their own terms), watched his documentaries on Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow, Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius, D.W. Griffith: The Father of Film and his epic thirteen-part documentary series Hollywood: A Celebration of American Silent Film (among others), read his books on silent film history, and had the good fortune to see his restoration of Abel Gance‘s Napoleon three times (two of them thanks to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which brought the film to Oakland in 2012 for its only American screenings to date).
He has been honored by the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the American Society of Cinematographers and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which gave him the 2010 Silent Film Festival award for his lifelong commitment to silent film preservation and history. And in 2010 he received the Academy Honorary Award, the first film preservationist to be so honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The 20th San Francisco Silent Film Festival closes with Brownlow’s restoration of the original Ben-Hur (1925) and he will appear onstage in conversation with 2015 Silent Film Festival award recipient Serge Bromberg. I spoke with Brownlow (who lives and works in London) about his adventures in preserving the legacy of silent cinema and the state of film restoration.
Sean Axmaker: You were involved in restoration long before the digital era.
Kevin Brownlow: Well it was certainly before the digital days but I’m certain that people were restoring films before me. I just picked titles that seemed not to be what regular cinema would call ‘commercial.’
Serge Bromberg started collecting films as kid. “I have been a film buff since the age of eight or nine. I used to buy films from Blackhawk and Castle and all those companies in America and in France when I was a teenager and watch those films and show those films to my friends. They didn’t care but there were no VCRs, no DVDs.”
In 1985, not long out of college, he turned that passion into his mission. Joining forces with Eric Lange, they created Lobster Films, which has since become one of the preeminent forces of restoration and preservation of classic cinema—silent and sound films alike—in the world. Among its many accomplishments, Lobster is responsible for the preservation of hundreds of films by cinema pioneer Georges Méliès, including the discovery in 1999 of 17 films previously considered lost, and the works of the almost forgotten early animation genius Charley Bowers, and the restoration of early Charlie Chaplin shorts made for Keystone and Mutual and the sole surviving original hand-colored print of Georges Méliès’s landmark A Trip to the Moon. Of more recent vintage, Bromberg tracked down the unseen footage (including reels of unprocessed film) from Henri-George Clouzot‘s unfinished L’Enfer and presented the amazing images in the documentary Inferno.
Serge Bromberg will receive the 2015 San Francisco Silent Film Festival Award for his commitment and contribution to film preservation, which will be bestowed upon him at the world premiere screening of the new Lobster Films-produced restoration of Jacques Feyder‘s Visages d’Enfants / Faces of Children (1925).
I spoke with the Paris-based M. Bromberg via Skype a couple of week before he was to leave for San Francisco. Lobster Films had just suffered a computer crash and he had to take a laptop into the company’s basement breakroom. Behind him were stacks of film cans. “Those are not dummy cans,” he assured me. “They are actually cans of film in the process of being restored.” We couldn’t have a better setting if Cedric Gibbons had designed it.
At 4 she had to improvise her way off a burning movie set when the route she was supposed to take through the flames was accidentally set ablaze; by 10 she estimates she was worth about 4 million dollars (what her parents didn’t spend a business manager stole); by 17 she was unemployable, a relic from an era Hollywood at the time preferred to forget. Tom Lamont profiles Diana Serra Cary, née Baby Peggy, child movie star of silent films who at 96 has come through with a happy ending after all.
Let’s hope the same after similarly long life for Arielle Holmes, whose days of drug addiction and homelessness became, at the age of 20, inspiration for her starring debut Heaven Knows What. Amy Larocca has the story.
A clear highlight of the new [in]Transition, a journal of audio-visual media essays, is Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin’s close reads of a pair of slow dances to show how insufficient it is to pigeonhole either Burnett’s Killer of Sheep or Ramsay’s Ratcatcher as “realist” films. Elsewhere Richard Misek hommages Michael Snow and Hollis Frampton; and Austin Fisher amusingly interweaves Kim Jae Woon’s The Good, the Bad, and the Weird with its chief inspiration and near-namesake. Via Film Studies for Free.
Sooner or later, it seems, every Nicholas Ray fan comes around to defending Party Girl. For Brad Stevens it isn’t just a matter of mise-en-scène, “an empty exercise in ornate visual excess, but rather one of American cinema’s most devastating critiques of McCarthyism.”
A few short takes on SIFF offerings for the third weekend of the biggest, longest film festival in the United States.
PHOENIX (Christian Petzold, Germany, 2014; 98 minutes)
Fresh from Auschwitz and extreme facial reconstruction, Nelly returns to the noirish backstreets and bars of bombed-out Berlin, looking for what’s left of herself—and the husband whose memory helped her survive hell. Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) doesn’t recognize this gaunt, shell-shocked stranger as his once-glamorous wife, but plots to use her in a scam to inherit wealth left by Nelly’s gassed relatives. Sure to turn up on year-end Ten Best lists, this brilliant film plumbs the nature of identity, post-WWII guilt and denial, death and resurrection—and showcases a shattering performance by Nina Hoss. – KAM
Sunday, May 31, 7:15pm, SIFF Uptown Theater
Man, Pride and Vengeance (Blue Underground, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – There were hundreds of spaghetti westerns produced by Italian studios in the sixties and early seventies. Only a small percentage of them were particularly good, and fewer still genuinely great. You’d think we’d be running out of discoveries by now but Man, Pride and Vengeance (1967), from director Luigi Bazzoni and star Franco Nero, is a respectable find. Based on the novel Carmen by Prosper Merimee, with Nero as the loyal, straight-arrow soldier José demoted after he’s tricked by gypsy hellion Carmen (Tina Aumont), it’s the rare spaghetti western that is actually set in Spain, where it was shot.
In this take, José is has no fiancée to betray, which perhaps makes him more susceptible to Carmen’s flirtations, and Nero plays him as an affable career man whose equilibrium is completely upset by the surge of emotions—lust, rage, resentment, jealousy—that the wild free spirit brings out in him. Aumont makes a cheeky Carmen, not malicious so much as unapologetically mercenary and sexually independent but with a code of conduct that she follows faithfully. She pays her debts, which complicates José’s life more than he can handle. Soon he’s on the run from a murder charge and joins her criminal gang, where he meets her husband Garcia (Klaus Kinski), fresh out of prison and ready to take charge of the gang and take on anyone he sees as a threat. While José earns the nickname “Preacher” for his insistence on a disciplined plan and a non-violent execution of the stage robbery (both a moral and practical decision; murder brings out the soldiers in force), Garcia is like unstable dynamite pulled from the storage of a long prison sentence and ready to blow at the slightest nudge.
[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]
“I remember.” Perhaps that’s slightly misleading if you regard memory as purely objective recollection, which this movie obviously isn’t. And yet, no matter how strong Fellini’s tendency toward dissociation of events, scenes, etc. on any sort of rational level may be, I think Amarcord is finally more “together” than its temporal and narrative drift through this brightly colored cross-section of Fellini’s memory and imagination might indicate. People seem to come and go as they please, but after a while one is aware that more or less the same people are doing the coming and the going. In any crowded scene, just let your eyes drift toward whatever part of the frame the gravity of Fellini’s mise-en-scène seems to be pulling them, and you will see a face that looks familiar. No scene is impersonal in the sense of being just a crowd scene, and it might even be argued that the people who appear to be most especially cherished by Fellini are often those on the periphery of the milieu: the old man who recites his poem about bricks, the blind accordion player who fairly oozes an ecstatic agony as he pours his soulful melancholia onto the sidewalk, the whore Volpina who scurries catlike along walls and through dark alleys licking her lips in sexual anticipation, the thirty-ish, fading-but-yet-to-blossom Gradisca whose dreams are realized at the end of the movie when she at last finds her Gary Cooper (as the self-styled Ronald Colman points out in a toast to the newlyweds). Winding his way around this hub of eminently Felliniesque citizenry, travelling through murky labyrinths of time and space, Fellini finally winds up in control of the situation, having in the process integrated his sequences into an organic cycle which encompasses the movement of the entire film and which, by extrapolation, is molded by forces outside Fellini’s cinematic universe: seasons, life, death, youth, love, even madness.
[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]
What do Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) have in common? Quite a lot, it seems to me. And yet, in all my reading on film, I have run across only one brief speculation on the subject: Andrew Sarris’s, in the context of his rebuttals to Pauline Kael’s Kane articles.
Both films, to begin with, deal with the search for a hidden secret in the life of an important man, and both use a flashback framework as means of narration (though Rebecca maintains a single point of view through most of its story, while Citizen Kane crisscrosses the memories of several characters in a network of flashbacks). Both films are informed by the presence of a dead person, though Charles Foster Kane is the central character in Welles’s film, while Hitchcock’s title character never appears. Nevertheless, each film’s ghostly presence is signaled by the recurrent motif of an initial-monogram, ‘R’ and ‘K,’ respectively. In each film a scandal—hushed up in Rebecca, headlined in Kane—attends the end of the important man’s first marriage, and overshadows his second marriage to a “common” woman.
“Considering the very personal tone of Dreams and that Kurosawa was 80 when he finished it, it’s hardly surprising that the film meditates on the balance of life and death. Yet this thematic crux is articulated not as a simple, binary opposition, but as an intricate intertwining: death-in-life and life-in-death.” Godfrey Cheshire has a lovely read on Kurosawa’s Dreams, paying particular attention to the careful balance that structures the individual scenarios. Via Rachel Handler.
“The technology was in its infancy, and we had a chance to shape it—but that became fucking Casper the Friendly Ghost.” Alex French and Howie Kahn compile an oral history of Industrial Light and Magic that breaks the news it was hard work, thinking outside the box, and stick-to-it-tiveness that made the special effects company the monster it is today. Also that Lucas, ever the optimist, hopes there’s another Howard the Duck movie: “A digital duck will make that thing work.”
At Film Comment, a pair of articles takes a look at the closest thing peripatetic Orson Welles ever came to calling a home, the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, IL. James Hughes recounts highlights from the town’s centennial celebration of the school’s most famous graduate, and Steven Mears recounts the small but invaluable contribution Welles made to a school project that turned out to be “the first anti-nuke propaganda film on record.”
What does war become in the remote-control age of drone strikes and remote surveillance? That’s what Andrew Niccol ostensibly asks in Good Kill—a film we know, after watching a few minutes, is going to spin its impersonal military-speak title into bitter irony. There we see Major Tommy Egan (Ethan Hawke) destroying military targets in Afghanistan from the Nevada desert, where he mans the deadliest videogame you ever saw.
This veteran Air Force fighter pilot has been downsized to drone jockey, and Tommy wants nothing more than to get back into the cockpit, even if it means going back to Afghanistan. Or maybe especially if it means going back. It’s not just the G-forces and the rush of speed. There’s something about deployment that makes war more real.
As evidenced by the success of radio’s Serial and TV’s The Jinx (like anybody consumes things on radio or TV any more, amirite?), our collective taste for true-crime stories remains boundless. If murder is on the menu, so much the better. Which means that veteran filmmaker André Téchiné (The Girl on the Train) ought to have a foolproof picture with this dramatization of a tantalizing real-life mystery. The case is better known in Europe than in the U.S., but that shouldn’t matter much—and like The Jinx, it involves wealth, decades of unanswered questions, and a missing woman who is yet to be found.
Thing is, Téchiné’s approach feels designed to smother the breathless melodrama of Serial and The Jinx.
The films of Quentin Dupieux would’ve been a smash in the late ’60s and early ’70s, crammed as they are with surreal tricks and car tires that kill people and questions about how much of what we see is real, man. After the zany shenanigans of Rubber and Wrong, Dupieux takes on the moviemaking business in Réalité, although this movie is about other things too. And possibly about nothing.
A little girl is puzzled by a VHS tape she sees tumbling out of a boar’s belly when her sportsman father cleans the dead animal. But this vignette turns out to be part of a movie being shot by a pretentious director (John Glover), whose French producer (Jonathan Lambert) is growing impatient with the film’s realistic style.