Resnais and Stroheim at the Pacific Film Archive

Friday night, I attended two very different screenings at the Pacific Film Archive. The first, Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour, is a widely-acknowledged masterpiece. The other, Erich von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly, is the uncompleted final work of great but controversial filmmaker.

It was my first experience seeing either film.

Hiroshima mon amour

Why did it take me so long to see Alain Resnais’ first feature film? Simple. For more than 40 years, I’ve actively hated his second feature, Last Year at Marienbad. But finally, I decided to give his first feature a chance.

I’m glad I did.

Hiroshima mon amour starts with a couple in bed, presumably naked, locked in love’s embrace. But their talk is not about love–or even sex. They’re talking about the bomb and Hiroshima. He wants to make sure that she has seen everything of importance in that victimized city and understands what it means. (The film was made in 1959. The end of World War II was as close then as 9/11 is to us today.)

Soon we get to know these lovers. The woman is a French actress (Emmanuèle Riva), working on location in Hiroshima. He’s a Japanese architect, and Hiroshima is his home–it always has been. He was in the army, serving elsewhere when the bomb hit. But his family was there.

They’re very much in love, but it’s not that simple. Not only are they of different cultures (he, conveniently, speaks fluent French), but both of them are already married. She will be gone soon, and presumably they will never see each other again.

But sex can lead to other forms of intimacy, and soon they’re telling each other their secrets. Actually, she tells more than he does, about the German lover she had during the occupation and the punishment she endured for “betraying France.”

Hiroshima mon amour is an intimate, hopeless love story set against the ruins of a massively horrific war that scarred everyone involved (mentally or physically). My one complaint: I would have liked to know more about the man’s past. The flashbacks were all the woman’s.

The film has just been restored, and was screened off a DCP. It looked fantastic.

I give it an A-.

Queen Kelly

How could this be anything except a disaster? Joseph Kennedy, without any real movie experience, financed Queen Kelly as a vehicle for his mistress, Gloria Swanson. He hired Erich von Stroheim to write and direct it–despite Stroheim’s reputation as an overspending, uncommercial, and uncontrollable egomaniac. (He was all those things, as well as a brilliant artist.)

It’s no surprise that Queen Kelly, made at the very end of the silent era, was never completed. Swanson and Kelly fired Stroheim, shelved the film, unshelved it, pieced it together, shot additional scenes, and eventually released it in various forms.

It’s probably remembered best today for a couple of scenes that appeared in Sunset Boulevard.

The film today, at least in the 1983 restoration screened Friday night, is of little but historical interest. The plot–or what’s left of it–is silly. The characters are cardboard. Its attempts at being kinky are just kind of annoying. The whole last part of the film is a series of intertitles–with a few photographs–that tell the audience what would have happened had Stroheim been able to complete his vision.

But then, of all the brilliant and daring auteurs who fought the Hollywood studio heads to have their visions brought to the screen, only Erich von Stroheim makes me feel sorry for the studio heads.

The 35mm print had serious focus issues, presumably because the sources were several generations away from the original negative. Although this was a silent movie, it was shown at the PFA with a recorded musical soundtrack–probably from a very early release. By the time the film came to paying audiences, movie theaters had laid off their musicians and the American silent cinema was dead.

And if it hadn’t been dead, this film might have killed it. I give Queen Kelly a D.

The A+ List: Five Easy Pieces (also Cries and Whispers)

I’d like to bring your attention to two excellent dramas, both made in the early 1970s, and both about dysfunctional families. Both earn my A+ rating, which I only give to films that I’ve loved for decades and still love.

I’ve already written about Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, so I’ll just point you to my Blu-ray review.

The other film comes from a far less likely source: a major Hollywood studio.

Five Easy Pieces

Bob Dupea (Jack Nicholson) doesn’t play well with others. A blue-collar worker on an oil rig near Los Angeles (such things existed then), he’s moody and difficult. He treats Rayette, his live-in waitress girlfriend (Karen Black) horribly. He has one good friend, but he lashes out at him, as well.

As we discover reasonably early in the film, he hasn’t always been working class. He grew up in an economically well-off family of classical musicians. At some undefined point in the past, he ran off–and he’s been running ever since. News that his father has had a stroke brings him back home, where his two siblings still live. Here we discover the dynamics that made him what he is–a drifter who imagines himself to be some sort of rebel.

Today it’s hard to imagine a major Hollywood studio (Columbia in this case) financing and releasing this sort of film. And even in 1970, it was astonishing. The surprise success of Easy Rider the previous year ripped a hole in the studio system, and a generation of experimental filmmakers streamed in. No one was in a better position to take advantage of that opening than Bob Rafelson, whose company had produced Easy Rider. Rafelson produced and directed Five Easy Pieces. For more on this, see America Lost & Found: The BBS Story.

The film never asks us to like Bob, but it does make us care for him. His inability to stay in one place or relationship, his constant alienation and internal anger wins our sympathy, if not our love. He’s clever, good-looking, and magnetic, and easily gains friends and lovers (in the course of the film, he has sex with three woman–including a pre-All in the Family Sally Struthers). But when things get serious, he either becomes abusive or runs away.

Nicholson gives a brilliant performance here; probably the best of his career. He spent the 60s playing supporting roles in cheap B pictures. A scene-stealing support role in Easy Rider made him marketable. Five Easy Pieces, his first leading role, proved him to be star material.

But his isn’t the only great performance in the film. Karen Black’s Rayette is another masterwork of acting. Depressed, insecure, and–let’s be honest–not very smart, she clings to Bob with a desperation that’s heart-breaking. She takes his insults and verbal abuse, and desperately tries to bring the spark back into the relationship. She clearly lacks the confidence to dump him and find someone better.

Bob, on the other hand, clearly feels ashamed that he’s with such a trashy woman. And yet, in the one scene where he acts somewhat decently, he defends Rayette against the patronizing attacks of a pseudo-intellectual.

Other standouts in a uniformly excellent cast are Lois Smith as Bob’s loving but insecure sister, and Helena Kallianiotes as a constantly-complaining hitchhiker. Her character, who is only in the film for maybe 15 minutes, provides an unusual form of comedy relief.

Five Easy Pieces does something rare in American film. It gives us an unlikable leading man, and makes us care about him–even when it makes us care far more for the people he hurts.

Dough and Opening night at the SF Jewish film festival

I attended opening night of the SF Jewish Film Festival at the Castro last night. It was, for the most part, an enjoyable evening.

Although it did start with the inevitable reserved seating problem. The whole front half of the theater was cordoned off for VIPs. Luckily, I convinced a volunteer usher that as press, I counted as a VIP, so I was able to sit in my preferred 3rd row center seat. Not that I was stealing that seat from a worthier person. For most of the film, I was the only person in the front three rows.

The show started soon after the official 6:15 starting time with a series of past Jewish Film Festival trailers. The last trailer, of course, was this year’s, and its’ one of the best.

The talking started at 6:23. SFJFF officers discussed the history of the Festival, the organization’s new name–the Jewish Film Institute–and their video-on-demand service. We were told that people under 35 can buy a festival pass for $35 (it doesn’t cover the big nights). We heard about other films coming up. And the director of this year’s film, John Goldschimdt, was introduced and talked briefly.

The movie started at 6:46. Not bad.

And the film itself? Not bad.

B+ Dough

This feel-good comedy succeeds in making you laugh and in making you feel good. Why not? The marijuana-laced challah makes the onscreen characters laugh and feel good. You have to suspend a lot of disbelief to accept the absurdities of the story and the conventional comic tropes, but if you do you can sit back and enjoy the movie. The story involves an orthodox kosher baker (Jonathan Pryce) who hires a Muslim, African refugee teenager (newcomer Jerome Holder) as his apprentice. And of course they bond while the bakery thrives. It’s a movie.

Dough will play three more times at the festival:

This British film may get an American theatrical release, although as near as I can tell, it has not yet been picked up my a distributor.

After the film, director Goldschimdt and star Holder came on stage for a Q&A. It happened to be Holder’s 21st birthday, and he was presented with a cake.

Some highlights:

  • How did you (Holder) get involved? “I got called in to come in, and I did and audition with Jonathan Pryce. I’d done a bit of TV work. This is my big break.”
  • On playing a character from Darfur (out of character, Holder speaks with a London accent): It came to me just speaking to people in that circle.
  • Goldschimdt: “We shot 60 percent of the film in Budapest. It was a very good experience.”
  • On casting Holder: “When you look at a video, you can see who the camera likes best.” He brought Pryce into the auditions to make sure they had chemistry together.
  • Holder: “It was the best 10 or 11 weeks of my life.”

After the show, I went to the opening night party at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. The current exhibit on Any Winehouse was open for us. There was plenty of good food, but alas, no marijuana-laced challah.

What’s Screening: July 24 – 30

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs through this weekend and beyond. And the Brainwash Movie Festival opens tonight, runs through the weekend, takes the week off, then revives for next weekend. I’ve placed the festival films that I’ve seen at the bottom of this newsletter.

A+ Red River, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

John Wayne gives one of his best performances, showing us the villain in the hero and the hero in the villain as the Captain Bligh figure in this western variation on Mutiny on the Bounty. The character starts out as your classic Wayne hero—strong, stubborn, a man of his word who is quick with a gun. But these traits prove his moral undoing as he leads others on a dangerous cattle drive. To make matters worse, his adopted son (Montgomery Clift in his breakout role) leads the rebellion. Read my Blu-ray review and Book vs. Film discussion.

A- Aparajito, Rafael, Sunday

As is so common with trilogies, the middle film is the weakest. But with the Apu Trilogy, the weakest can be far from weak. In Aparajito, Apu grows from late childhood into late adolescence, and his view of India and the world widens considerably. He excels in school and becomes excited by science. In many ways, it’s a more optimistic film than its predecessor; this kid just might be going places. But there’s a heavy price to pay for advancement out of his class. His now widowed mother can’t bear to lose her last surviving child to the world. See my discussion of the entire trilogy.

B+ This Is Spinal Tap, Lark, Saturday, 8:00

The mockumentary to end all rockumentaries. Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer play the subject of this fake documentary–an English heavy metal band of questionable talent on a disastrous American tour. Director Rob Reiner plays, appropriately enough, the documentary’s director. Uneven, but often brilliantly hilarious, although you need a good grounding in rock music and concert movies to get most of the jokes. On a scale of one to ten, the best scenes rate an eleven.

B+ American Graffiti, Balboa, Tuesday, 7:30

A long time ago, in a Bay Area that feels very far away, George Lucas made an entertaining (and extremely profitable) movie without action, a big budget, or special effects. Talk about nostalgia. You can also talk about old-time rock ‘n’ roll–American Graffiti makes great use of early 60s music in one of the most effective and creative sound mixes of the ’70s.

Blade Runner, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30

Based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Blade Runner remains surprisingly thoughtful for ’80’s sci-fi–especially of the big budget variety. It ponders questions about the nature of humanity and our ability to objectify people when it suits our needs. The script’s hazy at times; I never did figure out some of the connections, and a couple of important things happen at ridiculously convenient times. But art direction and music alone would make it a masterpiece. Read my longer essay.

The Big Lebowski, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00

This is one exceptional comedy–a Raymond Chandler story where Philip Marlowe has been replaced with a happily unemployed, perpetually stoned, thoroughly inept slacker who calls himself “the Dude” (Jeff Bridges). Behind the laughs, you can find a thin, barely grasped sense of Zen–as if you could throw yourself to the universe and everything will come out okay…unless it doesn’t. The wonderful supporting cast includes Sam Elliott, John Turturro, Julianne Moore. Philip Seymour Hoffman, and John Goodman as the funniest Vietnam vet ever to suffer from PTSD. (Actually, his friends do most of the suffering.) Read my full report.

B+
Scarlet StreetStanford, through Friday

If you’re lonely, bored, professionally unfulfilled, and stuck in a bad marriage, beware of beautiful women who seem interested in you–especially if you look like Edward G. Robinson. A cashier who dabbles in painting on the side (Robinson) falls for a dame who easily wraps him around her finger (Joan Bennett). Soon he’s stealing from his boss and letting the dame take credit for his suddenly successful paintings. You know this isn’t going to go well. A fine noir written by Dudley Nichols and directed by Fritz Lang. On a double bill with Father of the Bride.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

A- My Shortest Love Affair, Castro, Wednesday, 6:30; CineArts (Palo Alto), Thursday, 6:15

Funny, serious, sexy, and true to life, this French gem catches the struggles and futility of a bad romance. Months after a one-night stand resulted in pregnancy, Louisa (Karin Albou, who also wrote and directed) and Charles (Patrick Mimoun) move in together to raise their soon-to-be-born child. But they’re hopelessly incompatible. They like different music. He’s allergic to her cat. She takes her Jewish identity seriously; he doesn’t. But worst of all, they’re horrible together in bed. Attempts at sex continually turn into arguments. (Both stars are naked for much of the film, and you can clearly see that Albou was very pregnant while directing and acting with her clothes off.) The only misstep is the ending, which is too quick and convenient.

The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films, Castro, Saturday, 6:50; CineArts (Palo Alto),Monday, 6:30

Two cousins, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, built a successful Israeli movie studio, then moved to Los Angeles, mass-produced action flicks, made huge amounts of money, became a power in Hollywood, and then saw their business empire collapse. Hilla Madalia’s documentary, filled with interviews and film clips, entertains and informs, but isn’t really exceptional. Both men, and especially the more artistic Golan, make good on-screen interview subjects, and their interviews carry the movie.

A La Vie (To Life), CineArts (Palo Alto), Saturday, 8:30

Three Auschwitz survivors, best friends in the camp, reunite at a French beach resort in 1962. The story concentrates on Hélène (Julie Depardieu); married and very much in love with a man who was castrated by the Nazis (Hippolyte Girardot), her desires and her loyalties are in serious conflict. Rose (Suzanne Clément) seems at first to be the healthiest mentally, but her short temper belies issues she doesn’t want to surface. Lily (Johanna ter Steege) seems way ahead of her time as an activist for a feminist, egalitarian Judaism. The story is reasonably well-told, but predictable.

The Law, Castro, Tuesday, 9:00, CineArts (Palo Alto), Wednesday, 8:50

A great cause doesn’t always make a great film. France’s struggle to legalize abortion in the mid-1970s comes off as a lot of compromises and backdoor deals done in smoke-filled rooms (literally smoke-filled; it’s France in the 1970s). As the film’s heroine, Minister of Health Simone Veil (Rue Mandar) comes off as steadfast and strong, but not particularly interesting. A subplot concerning a young photographer who wants to become a real journalist shows some human interest, but not enough. The real story, of pregnant women facing disaster, comes in only rarely.

C-  Mr. Kaplan, CineArts (Palo Alto), Thursday, 8:35

In Uruguay at the end of the 20th century, an old, senile Jewish man almost randomly decides that an equally old German man is a Nazi in hiding. So he teams up with an unemployed, alcoholic loser of an ex-cop to bring the mass murderer to justice. Writer/director Alvaro Brechner tries to mix broad comedy with sentimental drama, but he only moderately succeeds with either style, and never succeeds in bringing them satisfactorily together. I figured out the “surprise” ending less than half an hour into the movie.

Yet another great American film list–and like the others, mostly about white people

We’ve got yet another all-time greatest films list. So what’s different about this one? It’s a list of American
films, but it’s not an American list. It comes from the BBC, and was created through a survey of film critics from around the world (and yes, Yankee critics were allowed to submit their opinions).

Of course, there’s always the question of what is an American film. When the American Film Institute made its own 100 Greatest American Movies list in 1998, Lawrence of Arabia came in 5th. When the AFI did it again in 2007, Lawrence came in 7th. I suppose that Americans like to think of Lawrence as an American film, and the British prefer to consider it British.

Like all such lists, this one has something to please every cinephile and something to make every cinephile burn with rage. I mean, did everuone just forget about The General?

I found some surprising choices here, especially in the high numbers. Movie 100, Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, falls apart with ridiculous ending. And I think this is the first time I’ve seen Heaven’s Gate on such a list. I’ve yet to see the movie, remembered for being the critical and commercial disaster that destroyed United Artists, but people are beginning to re-evaluate it.

And very close to the middle, at number 47, we have one of Alfred Hitchcock’s worst films, Marnie.
Rear Window didn’t even make the list.

Following tradition, Citizen Kane came in number 1. I’m glad to see it on top again, and not knocked off its perch by Vertigo, as happened on Sight and Sound’s latest survey. (Vertigo came in third, after The Godfather. It wouldn’t have made my list at all.)

I decided to put this list through the test I discussed in Race and Casting in American Movies. You start with a list of American films, then remove all of them with a white protagonist. Then you remove those where the protagonist couldn’t possibly be white. Finally, you remove those whose protagonist is a cop, a criminal, or a soldier.

How did this group fare? 92 of the films had white protagonists. Of the remaining eight:

Some of the films are kind of a gray area. Touch of Evil has a Mexican hero, and West Side Story has a Puerto Rican ingénue, but they’re both played by white movie stars. I don’t think that counts. The documentary Koyaanisqatsi doesn’t have a protagonist–or any kind of character. And although The Lion King has a protagonist, he isn’t human; there are no people in this animated film. You can’t really talk about the race of a lion. (For what it’s worth, the hero is voiced by the white Matthew Broderick.)

Killer of Sheep, Do the Right Thing, and 12 Years a Slave all have African-American protagonists. But considering what these films are about, there wasn’t much of a choice there.

And that leaves Night of the Living Dead as the only film on the list where the protagonist isn’t white for the simple reason that a white person wasn’t cast in the role.

I don’t blame the BBC or the critics surveyed for this. I blame the American film industry.

I haven’t done a similar examination considering gender. I’m sure that would also provide some interesting results.

Check the list out yourself. You’ll find plenty of your favorites. But you’ll also find a lot that will make you cry “What were they thinking?”

Miracle Mile: A quirky romantic comedy thriller about the ultimate disaster. My Blu-ray review

I usually review Blu-rays of well-loved classics. This time, I’m covering a little-known film you’ve probably never heard of. But it should be a well-loved classic.

Miracle Mile starts as a quirky, one-of-a-kind romantic comedy. Harry (Anthony Edwards) woos Julie (Mare Winningham)–in a science museum–with his wit and his slide trombone. He meets her grandparents. They arrange a first date. He oversleeps and misses it.

Then he answers a wrong phone number and discovers that everything he cares about–in fact, all of civilization–will be gone in a little more than an hour. The United States has fired nuclear missiles at the Soviet Union, and retaliation is inevitable.

Unless, of course, it was a prank call.

At that point, Miracle Mile becomes a very different type of movie. Following Harry in real time, it becomes both a heart-stopping thriller and a very dark comedy of disaster, as he tries desperately to find and save the girl who thinks he jilted her.

And, of course, everything goes wrong. And not just the little, funny things. Harry’s actions result in several deaths and the destruction of a gas station and department store. Eventually, Harry begins to doubt what he heard on that wrong number, but that’s no comfort either. If the bombs won’t be falling, he’s going to be in very big trouble.

The comedy drains away as the suspense increases and the film nears its climax. I found myself shaking in the film’s last minutes–and that was my second time seeing the movie.

Harry isn’t much of a hero. Yes, he puts his life on the line to save the woman he loves–even though they’ve only just met. But he makes one stupid mistake after another, and unlike a Hitchcock protagonist, he doesn’t learn much from his mistakes.

The story wouldn’t work at all if we didn’t care about Harry and Julie. De Jarnatt made a very good choice in casting Edwards and Winningham in the lead roles. They’re both attractive, but not gorgeous. Because they don’t look like conventional Hollywood stars, you can more easily accept them as real people. They’re not fantasy figures. It helps considerably that both Edwards and Winningham are excellent actors.

De Jarnatt and cinematographer Theo van de Sande shot most of Miracle Mile in long takes, often with excellent, dynamic staging and camera movements that don’t draw attention to themselves. This style, almost unheard of today, adds to the feeling that the movie is unspooling in real time–that ten minutes on the screen is equal to ten minutes in the characters’ lives. And when the minutes left in the characters’ lives may be draining away very quickly, the film becomes very tense.

Helping that tension is the remarkable music by Tangerine Dream, which manages to be unusual without drawing attention to itself. Chilling and taut, it produces the feeling of a nightmare.

The title comes from a Los Angeles neighborhood, not far from Hollywood, where most of the film is set.

Made in 1988 and released in 1989, Miracle Mile is probably the last film about nuclear disaster made during the cold war. It barely made a peep when it came out. I discovered this film, almost by accident, in New York in 2011. I wrote about it enthusiastically, and noted that it was available for home viewing only on a badly-cropped DVD. Since I discovered it, it has played once at the Castro.

In other words, it’s a very difficult film to see properly, either in a theater or at home. I’m glad to report that with the release of this Blu-ray next Tuesday (July 28), at least for home screenings that problem will be solved.

First Impression

There’s nothing special about the case, and nothing inside that case except the disc.

When you insert the disc and get past the FBI warning, you’ll find a very stripped down and unexceptional menu. The only options are Play, Chapter, and Bonuses. There are no Setup options.

The disc only has nine chapters.

How It Looks

This low-budget film doesn’t call for an incredible transfer, and Kino didn’t give it one. But the transfer is more than acceptable. The colors look right, and pop when they should pop (which is often). Everything is reasonably sharp, and the film grain is clearly visible.

In other words, it looks like just what it is: A low-budget commercial American film from the late 1980s, shot mostly at night with very fast film.

How It Sounds

Miracle Mile was originally released is Ultra Stereo, a competitor and to a certain extent a clone of the then ubiquitous Dolby Stereo. Coincidentally, this is my second Blu-ray review in a row of an Ultra Stereo film–the other being Hoop Dreams.

Like Dolby, Ultra put two discrete stereo tracks on the 35mm film, then used some electronic tricks to channel the sounds into four, rather than just two, directions. As far as I know, Ultra Stereo soundtracks were compatible with Dolby Stereo sound systems.

Kino is releasing Miracle Mile in 2-track stereo, without any instructions about surround decoding. Before watching the entire movie, I did some tests and decided that it sounded best with my receiver’s Dolby Surround Decode turned on. The tracks use lossless DTS-HD Master Audio compression, and sound great.

Still, I wish Kino had done what Criterion did with Hoop Dreams–release the disc with a 4.0 soundtrack. That gives you the original mix without any ambiguity about how the audio should be played.

And the Extras

  • Audio commentary with writer/director Steve De Jarnatt & film critic Walter Chaw: Interesting and covers all the bases, including how the story evolved, the small budget, and the various actors.
  • Audio commentary with De Jarnatt, DP Theo Van De Sande, and Production Designer Chris Horner: A lot of self-congratulations here, as they say various versions of “We did so much on such a tiny budget.” But they also describe some interesting money-saving tricks, so it’s not a complete loss.
  • Excavations from the editing room tar pits – deleted scenes, outtakes, and bloopers: 11 minutes, 1080p. Some of the scenes are interesting, and tell us more about the characters. But there’s no narration to put it into context. Someone decided to add music over everything, obscuring much of the dialog. Although presented in 1080p, it all looks like standard video.
  • Supporting cast & crew reunion: 14 minutes, 1080p. Several supporting actors talk about the movie and what they’ve done since.
  • Harry & Julie: Interview with stars Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham: 12 minutes, 1080p. They talk, with clips from the film popping up intermediately. It’s interesting. Edwards mentioned the NYC screening where I discovered the movie.
  • Alternate Diamond Ending: five minutes, 1080p. It repeats the last minute or so of the movie, then has one really stupid shot, then repeats the entire credits roll. Utterly pointless.
  • Trailers for Miracle Mile and De Jarnatt’s only other feature as a director, Cherry 2000.

Technicolor experiences at the Pacific Film Archive

Over the last few days, I’ve attended two separate three-strip Technicolor screenings at the Pacific Film Archive, each projected in a very different way. The first, Jean Renior’s The River, was screened pretty much as the original audiences saw it in 1951. The second, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffmann, was presented in a way only possible in the 21st century.

I liked both films very much. And I loved both forms of projection. I’ll talk about how the films looked and why, then tell you what I thought about the movies–neither of which I’d seen before last week.

Technicolor’s three-strip format dominated commercial color filmmaking from the mid-1930s through the early 1950s. A special camera recorded each primary color on a separate strip of black-and-white film.

From The History and Science of Color Fi 1 From Filmmaker IQ

The prints made from these tree negatives were prints in a pre-photography sense of the word–as in a printing press. From each negative, Technicolor would make a special intermediate relief print that would be thick and thin instead of black and white. They would use these to stamp the color dyes onto the release prints. You can find more technical details at the Widescreen Museum and the Timeline of Historical Film Colors.

These dye-transfer prints (the official name was IB, for imbibition) had a beauty all their own, with gorgeous saturation and reds that really popped. The dyes used were extremely stable; even the oldest existing dye-transfer prints look gorgeous today.

Both films were released in 1951, near the end of the three-strip period, and arguably when the technology, and the artistic use of that technology, was at its zenith.

The PFA screened The River in an archival dye-transfer print made in 1952. And yes, the colors were amazing–beautiful in a way that you simply don’t find in today’s digital projection. Or for that matter, in yesterday’s conventionally-processed color film prints. On the other hand, focus was often unreliable and soft. I don’t know if that’s a problem with the printing, the print’s age, or a flaw in the film itself.

But the colors they had were always beautiful. Such dye-transfer prints will get rarer over the years, so you should never miss the chance to see one (unless you really hate the movie, of course).

The Tales of Hoffmann, on the other hand, has just gone through a full digital restoration. So it was projected digitally from a 4K DCP. The look was cleaner, brighter, and sharper than The River’s dye-transfer print. And while the gorgeous, highly-saturated colors certainly popped, they didn’t pop in the same way as dye-transfer print.

Film shrinks over time, and you can’t expect three separate reels to shrink in exactly the same way. So restoring three-strip Technicolor is an art in itself. You scan the original black-and-white negatives (assuming they survived) at a high resolution. Edge recognition software and human eyes resize the three images so that they match.

With The Tales of Hoffmann, the results were beautiful. The images were sharp (except when they shouldn’t be), and textured. And the color was just gorgeous.

So which was best? The dye-transfer print had a special excitement all its own. You watch it the way you read a first edition copy of a classic book–with awe. You’re experiencing a rare treat and you know it.

Digital projection isn’t a rare treat. But it provides a beautiful way to present these films, sharp and clean. And while the colors may not be as good as dye transfer, they’re still an improvement over conventional color film prints.

And before you talk about “How the film was intended to be seen,” consider this: IB prints were notoriously irregular. No two prints would have the exact same colors.

So what about the movies?

B+ The River

The clash of civilizations appears as a friendly melting pot in this coming of age story set in British India. A happy English family begins to get unglued when the two oldest daughters both develop crushes on the same American veteran–who just moved in with their next-door neighbor. There’s tragedy and near-tragedy, and gentle comedy, and the warm envelope of people who love each other, even when they’re angry. Renoir paints (an appropriate term for Technicolor) an idealized version of British India, where everyone gets along, no one rejects a mixed-race girl, and western and eastern ways of life merge happily.

A- The Tales of Hoffmann

The Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film of Jacques Offenbach’s episodic opera (with the libretto translated into English) merge stage and cinema like nothing else I’ve ever seen–at least at feature length. On one level, there’s no attempt at cinema realism. The sets, costumes, and makeup have all the expressionism of the live stage. But, like the great dance sequence in Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, it could only be created in a movie studio. The three stories (four if you count the framing device) are the simplest of fairy tales. But the dramatic use of music, dance, light, and acting makes it all (well, almost all) amazing.

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