Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Essays

SIFF 2011: Raiders keep losing the Ark

Decades of attending film festivals bring a lot of memories. Obviously, it’s a thrill to encounter new films that go on to challenge or captivate audiences in general release. But there’s another kind of encounter that’s at least as exciting and valuable, and can leave as deep a mark: the festival showcasing of a vintage film that’s been lost, or lain neglected, or not made available in this country, or recently been restored to its original beauty and integrity.

I cherish a summer evening in 1983 when the Seattle International Film Festival projected the British Film Institute’s nitrate Technicolor print of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp—one of the first showings in America of that inimitable 1943 masterpiece uncut, with its wraparound time scheme intact. A few years later, SIFF opened a window on something even rarer, the moment at the dawn of the talkies when Hollywood flirted with widescreen photography. Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail—a 1930 epic Western for which its 22-year-old leading man was rechristened John Wayne—enchanted a full house at the Egyptian Theatre in the 1988 fest; the next year brought Roland West’s surreal haunted-house melodrama The Bat Whispers. Untoppable festival experiences.

Recent SIFF seasons have vouchsafed few comparable archival opportunities. Closest to the mark have been some revelations from British cinema: the trenchant postwar film noir It Always Rains on Sunday and the late-silent A Cottage on Dartmoor. Which is not scorn things like last year’s slate of restorations from the Film Foundation—The River, Senso, Drums Along the Mohawk—but those films either were familiar from repertory and Turner Classic Movies showings, or about to be featured for home viewing as Criterion DVDs and Blu-rays. And however superb the restorations were, two of them looked “soft” as projected at SIFF.

Speaking of showmanship, I was appalled to learn that the Technicolor classic Black Narcissus was offered last Saturday not as a 35mm movie but as a projection from Blu-ray—and there were, as the delicate phrase goes, “digital issues” compromising the presentation. The Criterion Blu-ray is a thing of beauty (and I’m thrilled to own it), but if a film festival is going to present a landmark of cinematography, they damn well ought to show the film.

If you’re not going to do it right, why do it at all? Especially when, as with Black Narcissus, the picture has had other showings in Seattle art theaters and museum auditoriums in recent years, not to mention frequent airings on TCM. Why, with hundreds of worthy, essentially unseen archival candidates, do you decide to show this movie again? Now? And badly?

In the circumstances, it’s hard to know whether to be irked or relieved that the number of archival presentations at SIFF this year has dropped to seven. Make that four, since three of the programs aren’t old movies but new documentaries about old movies. Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff played last weekend. Hurricane Kalatazov, a portrait of Mikhail Kalatazov, director of The Cranes Are Flying and I Am Cuba, is coming June 4 and 5. These Amazing Shadows, a documentary on the National Film Registry, will show once only, Monday, May 30, 1:30 p.m. at the Harvard Exit.

Of the three oldies remaining, one sounds like a clear case of “avoid like the plague.” Raoul Walsh’s 1924 The Thief of Bagdad is a well-loved Douglas Fairbanks classic and a milestone in the career of production designer William Cameron Menzies. On its own recognizance the film would be welcome, but what SIFF plans to show is “The Thief of Bagdad Re-imagined by ‘broadcast legend’ Shadoe Stevens with the Music of the Electric Light Orchestra.” Yes, by all means drag that hoary old silent movie kicking and (silently) screaming into our culturally enlightened age by slapping on a rock music score. Thursday, May 26, 7 p.m. at the Neptune.

The Night of Counting the Years is a lovely title, lovelier than the Egyptian original, The Mummy. Unlike English-language efforts of that name, this 1969 film by Shadi Abdel Salam is a subtle and delicate art film, a meditation on the passing of a remote community that’s survived by selling off their nation’s ancient artifacts. Revived at the 2009 New York Film Festival, the movie will be shown at SIFF—yep, digitally—Tuesday, May 31, 7 p.m. at SIFF Cinema.

Happily, Federico Fellini’s epochal La Dolce Vita will have its black-and-white Totalscope splendor served up on celluloid. It’s impossible to overstate the impact this three-hour canvas of Roman brio and oh-so-voluptuous decadence had on audiences half a century ago. As the central figure, a bored, charming, benignly amoral journalist, Marcello Mastroianni became an international star (incidentally, among many other things, the movie gave the world the term “paparazzi”). The festival guide says, “Newly restored with funding from the Film Foundation and Gucci.” Bring it on. Monday, May 30, 10 a.m. at the Harvard Exit.

Queen Anne & Magnolia News, May 25, 2011

Copyright 2011 by Richard T. Jameson