Little nutrition: My review of Soul of a Banquet

D documentary

  • Directed by Wayne Wang

Note: This documentary will screen twice at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Details below. I am posting a full review now because this picture was not on the Festival’s list of films for which reviewers were asked to hold reviews.

In his first documentary, the usually reliable Wayne Wang appears to have missed the point. He suggests that his subject, restaurateur Cecilia Chiang, led a fascinating and exciting life (and is still living it). But he gives us little information, and spends most of the picture just showing us food.

According to Wang’s interview subjects (primarily food author Ruth Reichl and Chez Panisse owner and founder Alice Waters) Chiang changed everything about Chinese food in America–and all of it for the better. Before she opened her restaurant, The Mandarin, in San Francisco in 1961, Chinese restaurants served what Reichl describes as "peasant food." Then Chiang apparently came along, and we’ve been happily eating delicious Chinese gourmet food ever since.

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But the film gives us little or nothing to support these claims. Was The Mandarin commercially successful? That never comes up. Did other Chinese restaurants start following her lead? Having seen the movie, I can’t tell you. But if they didn’t, how was she influential? We’re told off-handedly that The Mandarin no longer exists, but we’re never told when or why it closed.

In the interview-heavy first part of the film, Wang occasionally shows us the workings of a high-class Chinese restaurant kitchen. As I watched these, I assumed they were taken in The Mandarin. When the film casually mentioned that The Mandarin is no more, I felt cheated.

And what about that fascinating and exciting life? We’re given only a handful of enticing tidbits. We know she grew up in China, the youngest daughter of a large and wealthy family. An off-hand comment and some quick math in my head told me that she left China before 1942. She was married and living in Japan in 1961 when, as tourist, she almost accidentally acquired a San Francisco restaurant. In the film’s best sequence, she describes a heart-breaking 1972 visit to her family China, when the Cultural Revolution was winding down but still powerful and deadly.

But these little facts just leave us wondering. Why did she leave China? How did she end up in Japan? (With what little I know about the Japanese occupation of China, I can imagine the worst.) What happened to her marriage when she started a restaurant thousands of miles from her husband and home? How did she replace her tourist visa with something more permanent?

What little information we get is concentrated into that first part of this three-part, 78-minute feature. The second section shows her supervising a staff of professional cooks preparing a lavish banquet for friends in her apartment. Very little is explained. We see mostly extreme close-ups of knives chopping food. The knives are handled with exceptional skill, but you can only watch so much of this sort of thing.

In the third and final part, we watch the banquet. As each dish is served, she explains what it is, we get close-ups of the scrumptious-looking delicacy, and we watch her guests (which include Reichl and Waters) joyfully examine and then eat the wonderful concoctions.

This endless parade of close ups, intended to produce a sensual experience that cinema can only create by suggestion, felt very much like pornography. And like so much pornography, it eventually became boring.

Now I have to come clean about something that may have affected my reaction to these scenes. I’m a vegetarian, and have been for a very long time. When I look at meat, no matter how well cooked and displayed, I don’t see it as food. I see it as a dead animal.

On the other hand, I love Chinese food. It’s one of my favorite cuisines. So I think that one prejudice probably cancelled out the other.

Whether you eat meat or not, I don’t think you’ll find much to love about Soul of a Banquet. It lacks the information needed to back up its argument. It lacks a sense of what can and cannot be recreated in a visual medium. And frankly, despite the wonderful and creative people in front of and behind the camera, it lacks soul.

Mill Valley Film Festival Soul of a Banquet screenings:

  • Rafael,  Sunday, October 5, 5:00. Director Wayne Wang and subject Cecilia Chiang in attendance.
  • Sequoia, Tuesday, October 7, 2:15.

Mill Valley Film Festival Preview, Part II

Since I wrote Part 1, I’ve managed to see three additional movies that will screen at the upcoming Mill Valley Film Festival. Here’s what I thought of them, in order of best to worst.

A Hide and Seek 
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Four young adults, two women and two men, move into a large and remote country house, intent on a life of self-discovery and sex. Mostly sex. That sounds like a wild fling, but everything is oddly planned and organized. For instance, they have a schedule defining who will sleep with who each night. Of course, things won’t stay that organized. For a drama and character study, Hide and Seek is unusually upbeat, and has surprisingly little dialog. Much goes unexplained–finances, for instance. And yet, through looks, gestures, and some well-chosen words, we come to know these four extremely well–and not only because we see a lot of them with their clothes off. A remarkable work, and a pretty explicit one.

  • Sequoia, Saturday October 4, 3:00
  • Rafael, Monday, October 6, 3:30

B- For Those About to Rock: The Story of Rodrigo y Gabriela
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For the first two thirds of its 84-minute runtime, this is yet another music documentary woefully lacking in music. We watch and hear Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintera talk about their music and their struggles to get recognized. We learn how they developed their unique style–which I’d describe as instrumental, acoustic heavy metal with a Latin flare–in their native Mexico City, and how they found fame in Ireland. But you only hear the music itself in brief snatches, much of it as basic movie background music. You never hear a song all the way through, and get only quick glimpses of what makes these two worth being the subject of a documentary. But then, almost an hour into the movie, it becomes the concert film it should always have been, and thus becomes exciting and magical.

  • Rafael, Sunday, October 5, 8:00
  • Rafael, Tuesday, October 7, 2:15

C Tu Dors Nicole
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Like its main character, this low-key French-Canadian comedy/drama seems to make a point of going nowhere. That would be fine if it was already in an interesting place. The protagonist is a young woman sharing in her parent’s comfortable home (while they’re out of town) with her brother and his band. Early on, writer/director Stéphane Lafleur shows a nice touch for quiet, off-beat humor, with an awkward end to a one-night-stand and a 10-year-old boy with the baritone voice of a large man. But the humor dries up soon, and then there’s nothing left but characters who–aside from some occasional moments–are neither deep nor interesting.

  • Rafael, Friday, October 10, 3:45
  • Sequoia, Saturday, October 11, 8:45

Kubrick in digital and on film

Digital or film? For cinephiles, that’s the great controversy of our age. And the arguments get particularly agitated when talking about classic pictures made at a time when digital projection wasn’t an option.

But in the coming weeks, you get your chance to watch two Stanley Kubrick classics on 35mm film, and then again on DCP–the digital format used for professional theater projection. The films are Dr. Strangelove and The Shining.

This Sunday, September 28, the Roxie will screen both films as a double bill. Then, as part of their ongoing series, Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick, the Pacific Film Archive will screen Dr. Strangelove on Sunday, October 4. On Friday, October 24, they’ll screen The Shining. Both pictures will be screened off DCPs.

What motivated their decisions?

PFA programmer Steve Seid told me that that when he requested the films from Warner Brothers, and "they said only Eyes Wide Shut was on film." In other words, he had no choice about The Shining.  I neglected to ask him about Strangelove, which is not owned by Warner.

And what about the Roxie? Seid, who’s on the Roxie board, told me that they don’t have the DCI-compliant projector needed for DCPs. The best they can do, digitally, is Blu-ray. That can look very good on a theater screen, but not as good as a 35mm print.

The Roxie double bill is in conjunction with the Spoke Art gallery, which is running a Kubrick tribute art show which, unfortunately, closes today. Art Spoke’s owner, Ken Harman, provided the prints for the Roxie. Harman told me that "The choice to go 35mm was mostly an aesthetic one, I’m by no means a ‘purist’ and appreciate DCP, however being able to view films in 35mm is getting more and more rare…"

Harmen did not tell me where he got the prints. Seid assumes "that the Roxie found either archival or private prints." In that case, those prints should really be a treat.

What’s Screening: September 26 – October 2

The Iranian Film Festival runs through the weekend. And the fall’s biggie, the Mill Valley Film Festival, opens Thursday.

A Samuel Fuller Triple Bill: Pickup on South Street, Park Row, & A Fuller Life, Castro, Sunday. The A goes Pickup on South Street, a fantastic Cold War noir written and directed by the great Samuel Fuller. A pickpocket (Richard Widmark) steals a wallet containing top secret microfilm that was on its way to Soviet agents. Before you can say "Alfred Hitchcock," this petty thief is being chased about by the feds and the reds. Snappy dialog, well-choreographed action scenes (without today’s quick cutting), and the always wonderful Thelma Ritter keep it lively. This is my favorite Fuller film; I’ve written about it in more detail. Park Row, on the other hand, is Fuller at his didactic worst. This ode to the brave men of the 19th century newspaper business is mawkish and preachy. I haven’t seen A Fuller Life, Samantha Fullers’ documentary about her father.

A The Cartoon Genius of Chuck Jones, Oddball Films, Friday, 8:00. Few filmmakers understood comedy as well as animator extraordinaire Chuck Jones, who directed over 200 six-minute cartoons for Warner Brothers from the late 30s imageto the early 60s–many of them masterpieces. This evening’s selection includes such Warner gems as Rabbit Seasoning, Beep Prepared, and Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century. But it leaves out much of his best work, including One Froggy Evening, What’s Opera, Doc, and Duck Amuck–possibly because they’re shown so often. Amongst his non-Warner work, Oddball will show the World War II training film Pvt. Snafu vs. Malaria Mike and Jones’ 1975 TV adaptation of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. All in 16mm.

B Tommy, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. Ken Russell’s over-the-top film version of Pete Townsend’s and The Who’s rock opera hits you over the head with all the subtlety of Beach Blanket Babylon, turning a parable of imagespiritual quest into a carnival satire of materialism and cults. Oliver Reed proves he can’t sing as he plays a male version of the stereotypical evil stepmother. He’s not the only embarrassment in the all-star cast, but Roger Daltrey and Ann-Margaret, sing, dance, and act like the professionals they are. So do Eric Clapton, Tina Turner, and Elton John in smaller roles. Townsend’s music is still brilliant, and if this isn’t the best version of Tommy, it’s certainly the most fun.

C- Gone With the Wind, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday and Wednesday. I love big historical epics, but the biggest of them all just leaves me flat. First, there’s the blatant white supremacy. I’m used to racism in old movies, and generally just wince. But the racism in Gone with the Wind makes me cringe. The entire story depends on assumptions of white masters and black slaves as the natural order (you can read my in-depth comments). Leaving racial issues aside, the first part is pretty good, but boredom sets in after the intermission. The picture has one thing going for it: It used color far more creatively and effectively than any previous movie.

A- The Ladykillers (1955 version), Rafael, Sunday. In the 1950s, Britain’s Ealing Studios made several droll but wonderful comedies starring Alec Guinness, often imageabout crime. In The Ladykillers, probably the darkest Ealing comedy, Guinness leads a gang on a complex heist, and part of the complexity involves renting a room. But when their sweet, old landlady finds out that they’re not really musicians, their only option is to kill her–a task that proves far more difficult than they expected. Perhaps a more descriptive title would have been The Incompetent Ladykillers. Not be be confused with the Coen Brothers remake. The last film in the series Alec Guinness at 100.

B To Have and Have Not, Castro, Wednesday. This production ignited imagethe Bogart-Bacall romance, which itself ignites the screen. Aside from the considerable charisma and sexual sparks that its stars set off, it’s an entertaining tale of war-time intrigue but not really an exceptional one. A good movie with a couple of great scenes. On a double bill with Dark Passage, which I have yet to see.

A+ Casablanca, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. What can I say? You’ve either casablancaalready seen the best film to come out of the classic Hollywood studio system, or you know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another sausage coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. For more details, see Casablanca: The Accidental Masterpiece.

A To Kill A Mockingbird, Lark, Sunday, 1:10; Wednesday, 4:00. The film version of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel imagemanages to be both a nostalgic reverie of depression-era small town Southern life and a condemnation of that life’s dark and ugly underbelly. Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch is the ultimate decent and moral father, a character so virtuous he’d be unbelievable if the story wasn’t told through the eyes of his six-year-old daughter. (Had there been a sequel set in her teen years, Atticus would have been an idiotic tyrant.)

A Dr. Strangelove, Roxie, Sunday. A psychotic general named Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) imageorders his men to bomb the USSR and start World War III. But have no fear! The men responsible for avoiding Armageddon (several of them played by Peter Sellers) are slightly more competent than the Three Stooges.  We like to look back at earlier decades as simpler, less fearful times, but Stanley Kubrick’s “nightmare comedy” reminds you just how scary things were back then. On a Kubrick double bill with The Shining, which I’ve never seen. I have more to say on both Dr. Strangelove and Stanley Kubrick. Both films in 35mm.

F Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. Absolutely the worst Indiana Jones movie ever. First, Spielberg and company tried to make it dark and atmospheric, but only succeeded in imagemaking it unpleasant.  Second, leading lady Kate Capshaw, now Spielberg’s wife, gives a performance about as enticing as nails on a chalkboard. And finally, the movie is horribly, irredeemably, D.W. Griffith-level racist. Two years after Attenborough’s Gandhi,Spielberg and Lucas assure us that India needed white people to protect the good, child-like Indians from their evil, fanatical compatriots.

B The Hundred-Foot Journey, New Parkway, opens Friday. An Indian family in a small French town set up an eatery across the street from a famous and highly-imageregarded French restaurant, and the battle of culinary cultures begins. The first half is a lot of fun, but the main conflict gets settled–not very believably–way too soon. Then you spend too much time watching everyone be happy while waiting for two separate couples to realize that they’re in love. But I have to give kudos to cinematographer Linus Sandgren; this is the best photographed new film I’ve seen in a long time.

Five Came Back: Great film directors go to war

It’s hard to imagine an America so entirely at war that every aspect of the economy is affected. Where GM and Ford stop making cars to concentrate on bomber planes and tanks. Where healthy young men all but disappear from civilian life.

And where five of Hollywood’s top directors (along with multiple screenwriters, cinematographers, and even one studio head) left their mansions and high-paid jobs to join the army and make training and propaganda films.

imageLast week, I finished Mark Harris’ new book, Five Came Back, where he describes the military careers of Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler. All but Huston were major, established directors when Pearl Harbor was bombed; Huston was an exciting new director who had just burst onto the scene. All of them would be changed by the experience.

Harris also wrote Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, which I reviewed back in 2011. The two books have a similar structure, chronologically weaving five slightly interconnecting stories about filmmaking and society. With this second book, Harris has become one of my favorite film historians.

(A bit of trivia: Harris has some marital connections with Hollywood. He’s married to playwright and frequent Spielberg collaborator Tony Kushner.)

Capra had the easiest military experience of the five. Hollywood’s most popular and successful director through much of the 30s, his star was beginning to wane (according to Harris) by the early 40s. He spent most of the war stateside, producing and sometimes directing his Why We Fight and Know Your Enemy series, made up from old newsreels and other existing footage. The closest he came to combat was a few months in London, when the Germans were still regularly bombing that city.

By contrast, Stevens and Wyler (and to a lesser extent Huston and Ford) spent large portions of the war on the ground with troops or flying in bombers. In what is probably the best film of the group (at least the best I’ve seen), The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, Wyler films a bombing raid from inside a plane. The sense of flight and of danger are palpable.

The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress

Wyler paid a lot for his patriotism. He lost all of the hearing in one ear and most of it in the other. But that didn’t stop him from making Roman Holiday, Friendly Persuasion (very much an anti-war movie) and Ben-Hur.

Stevens lost something too, although it’s harder to define. He was with the troops that liberated the Dachau concentration camp, and spent his last months in the military documenting the atrocities. Before the war, he was known primarily for comedies. Afterwards, he stuck to drama.

And Ford? Well, his politics swung from left to right over the course of the war.

But my biggest surprise came with one of the most respected, and best, of the military films to come out of the war: Huston’s Battle of San Pietro. I had previously read that most of the picture was what we’d today call cinema vérité–footage shot of what was actually happening. The linear notes in the Treasures from American Film Archives collection says as much, and it certainly looks like it. But according to Harris, Huston arrived after the battle was over, and almost everything was faked. That it fooled so many people says a lot for Huston’s talent.

The Battle of San Pietro

Something struck me as I read this book, although Harris doesn’t hit on it. For their first film after returning to civilian life, four of the five made one of the best and most iconic pictures of their careers. Harris goes into detail about two of these–Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. (Despite the similar names, they are very different films.) The two he mentions only in passing are Ford’s My Darling Clementine and Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Stevens, recovering from the emotional blow of documenting the Holocaust, took longer to get up to speed.

Harris tells his stories in an easy-to-read style. Within the context of film history, he tells us a lot about how a struggle, now on the edges of living memory, that we could hardly even imagine today.

Valentino, Keaton, Caligari, Laurel and Hardy: My report on Silent Autumn

I could think of few better ways to spend a day then the way I spent last Saturday, at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival‘s first Silent Autumn event. Over the course of the day, we were treated to three features, two collections of shorts, and a lot of great music.

Let’s take the day in order.

Another Fine Mess: Silent Laurel and Hardy Shorts

It’s amazing how easily Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy made the transition from silent movies to sound. Adding voices barely changed their characters or comedy style.

The festival screened three of their two-reel silents–Should Married Men Go Home?, Two Tars, and Big Business. To show us how they evolved, the movies were screened in chronological order. That didn’t quite work; their characters and style seemed fully developed from the start of the show.

On the other hand, they did work, simply because all three were extremely funny.

Laurel and Hardy’s onscreen personas were probably the dumbest reoccurring characters in the history of the movies. Stan appears incapable of having a thought or remembering an instruction. Oli knows that Stan is an idiot, and thus, insists on taking charge. What neither of them seems to realize is that Oli is even dumber than Stan.

They’re also extremely vengeful and destructive–do something to get them angry, and you’ll be sorry. And yet, they’re eternally loveable. Looking and behaving like overgrown children, they wander into a placid and calm environment and, because of their presence, all hell breaks loose. Soon everyone is throwing mud, kicking shins, and tearing apart automobiles.

Laurel and Hardy slowed down the pace of silent comedy–which may be one of the reasons they did so well in talkies. They just stand there and watch while their antagonist–say, James Finlayson–rips off their headlight and throws it into their windshield. Then he just stands there and watches as they destroy his front door.

While the sound transition didn’t effect them much, they had a bigger problem moving from shorts to features. A real  plot inevitably got in the way of their style of comedy. But in short subjects, few geniuses were funnier.

Music: Donald Sosin accompanied these shorts on a grand piano. All three films opened with the MGM lion, and Sosin managed to recreate the roar on the piano (except for the last film, when he invited the audience to roar). His lively music helped keep the laughs coming.

Projection: The Festival screened archival prints from the Library of Congress and the UCLA Film Archive. Aside from some bad titles in Should Married Men Go Home?, they looked excellent.

The Son of the Sheik

You can’t discuss Rudolph Valentino’s last and most famous movie without confronting how attitudes about romance and sex have changed considerably in the last 90 years. Here’s a movie designed to feed women’s sexual fantasies, and judging from its commercial success and the audience that flocked to see it, it did its job.

Yet this is a film where the hero rapes the heroine. Of course he does it because he’s been lied to, and he feels bad about it afterwards. But still, the hero rapes the heroine.

In 1926, women found this movie very sexy. And judging from the women I talked to in the theater after the screening, a lot of them still do. Of course, then and now, no woman wants to be raped. But on a movie screen, with the gorgeous Valentino, it’s a safe fantasy.

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The story is silly and hokey, the cast is full of white actors in swarthy makeup, and there’s a comic sidekick bad guy who I just found annoying. But it was a lot of fun.

Music: The Alloy Orchestra (actually a trio with a wide range of instruments) premiered their new score for The Son of the Sheik on Saturday. It was lush and romantic, with a hint of the "Orient" without using the common, clichéd music.I loved it.

Projection: The festival screened this newly-restored classic digitally. The source material was clearly in bad condition, and probably several generations away from the original camera negative. The image quality was acceptable, but not great.

The shape of the frame was very narrow, with a little bit of the image sliced off on the left side. How did that happen? My guess: The source print, made after the silent era, came with recorded music. Because the soundtrack takes up room on the film, part of the image was lost.

A Night at the Cinema in 1914

Feature-length films came into fashion just about a hundred years ago. But it didn’t happen overnight. In 1914, more often than not, a night at the movies involved only a collection of shorts.

The British Film Institute has put together a selection of 14 such shorts to help recreate the movie-going experience in the year World War I started. Each of the shorts was preceded by a new title card putting it into a historical perspective.

Not that all of these particular shorts would have likely been on the same bill in 1914. One newsreel of the Austrian-Hungarian royal family, taken before Ferdinand’s assassination but screened after it, refers to the killing as a "tragedy." They didn’t know just how tragic it would be. Within weeks, those tragic Austrian royals were the enemy. Later newsreels in the program concentrated on the war.

Among the narrative offerings were two from America–a chapter from the serial The Perils of Pauline and an early Keystone Chaplin comedy called A Film Johnnie, where the tramp wanders into the Keystone studio. But the funniest selection in the show was British, Daisy Doodad’s Dial, about woman with a gift for making outrageous faces.

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Another highlight: The Rollicking Rajah was actually a sound film, using a film/phonograph system similar to the Vitaphone. Clearly a music hall act, enhanced with the ability to easily change settings, The Rollicking Rajah was a risqué musical act starring a male singer accompanied by flirtatious female dancers. Unfortunately, the phonograph record is lost, but the sheet music survives, which brings us to…

Music: In addition to playing the song, The Rollicking Rajah, on the grand piano, Donald Sosin sang the lyrics with the verve of a music hall performer. His words didn’t match the lips on screen perfecting, but they worked. He did a fine job on the rest of the show, as well.

Projection: I have nothing to complain about with this digital presentation. Some of the sources were pretty bad, and not much could be done to repair them. But overall, it looked very good.

The General

One of these days, I’m going to have to write a full article about Buster Keaton’s civil war masterpiece. So for now, I’ll keep it brief:

Based loosely on an actual event, The General puts a comic character at the center of a heroic epic, and he proves more than up to the task. The film is visually beautiful, and gives us the sweep of armies and locomotives moving through a land at war. In the climactic battle, soldiers actually die.

But it’s also a love story between a man and a train (there’s a girl in it, too). It’s made up almost entirely of two train chases. Keaton, a child of vaudeville who grew up largely on trains, wrings every gag possible (and some impossible) out of these wood-burning steam engine locomotives.

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The General belongs near the top of any must-see movie list. And like all good comedies, it’s best scene with an audience.

Music: The Alloy Orchestra provided a percussion-heavy score that emphasized the unstoppable forward motion of a fast-moving train. A couple of times it felt monotonous, but not for long. Comic sound effects, not overdone, added to the fun.

Projection: The festival screened an excellent 35mm print from Raymond Rohauer’s collection.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The story is very conventional–at least until the end. But no one remembers The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for its story. Visually speaking, this has to be one of the weirdest commercial films ever made.

The painted backdrops–including painted light and shadow–make no attempt to look realistic. Doors are angular and misshaped. Bureaucratic authority figures sit on very high stools, and crouch over high yet small desks. The sweet and innocent ingénue is dressed and made up to look like a darker and more depressing version of Morticia Addams.

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This is, apparently, the filmmakers’ view of small-town Germany in 1919, reeling from defeat.

Into this world, a showman named Dr. Caligari arrives with an act built around a somnambulist who never wakes up but can see the future. Then people start getting murdered.

The story takes some very wild turns in the last third. Best not to go too much into detail.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is an easier film to admire than to like. It’s expressionistic visuals and way over-the-top acting keeps the audience at an arms-length. The constant intensity can be exhausting. But the atmosphere can also have a powerful hold. And the film’s story and strangeness can say a lot about the society that made it, although what exactly it says is a matter of controversy.

Music: Donald Sosin eschewed the grand piano for a smaller, electric one for Caligari. I heard a violin, a harp, and other instruments in the score; presumably the piano had MIDI capabilities. The score was appropriately weird and kept the story moving.

Projection: For as long as I’ve been watching old movies, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari meant bad, soft, scratchy prints. But the film has recently gone through a thorough 4K digital restoration, and most of it looks great. And even when it doesn’t look great, it’s still presentable and a big improvement.

The enduring racism of Gone with the Wind

I find it disturbing that so many people still love Gone with the Wind. I’m not talking about esthetics here (although I do discuss those below), but content. Even by the standards of Hollywood in the first half of the 20th century, David O. Selznick’s epic comes off as exceptionally racist.

Warner Brothers, which did not make Gone with the Wind but now owns it, is making a big to-do this month over its 75th anniversary. They’ll start with a big presentation to a lot of big multiplexes, followed by a major new Blu-ray Ultimate Collector’s Edition. Over the years, Warner released multiple Blu-ray editions, including an extensive three-disc box set which they sent me for my 2010 Blu-ray gift guide. I didn’t include it in the guide, because I didn’t have the space to discuss the film’s celebration of slavery.

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You can’t extensively watch American films made before the Civil Rights Movement without growing a thick skin about casual racism. I’ve grown a sufficient skin to enjoy and recommend Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances, despite its cake-walking, idiotic hired hand–played by a white actor in blackface. I love Seven Chances, but every time that character comes on screen, I stop laughing and cringe.

It’s one thing to use racist stereotypes for a cheap laugh (and make no mistake; I do not excuse such images). But it’s something entirely different to seriously look back nostalgically at the “good old days” of slavery, and to suggest that emancipation had been at best a tragic mistake, and at worst an evil revenge against the gallant South. Selznick made this worldview clear from the very start with an onscreen prologue:

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called The Old South…Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow…Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their ladies fair, of Master and of Slave…Look for it only in books for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind…

Hey, if my parents wanted me to grow up mythologizing the old South, they wouldn’t have named me Lincoln.

GWTW isn’t the only Hollywood movie to take that attitude. The following year, Warner Brothers released Santa Fe Trail, which preached that the whole tragedy of the Civil War could have been avoided if northerners had just understood the wonderful institution of slavery. And Hollywood’s first big blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation, outdoes them all, combining GWTW’s slave-owner’s world view with Seven Chances’ black-faced buffoons. Birth’s exciting climax involves the Ku Klux Klan riding to the rescue.

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Today, Santa Fe Trail is largely forgotten. And Birth of a Nation is more famous for its racism than for its its importance in advancing the art and business of cinema. Almost a century after its world premiere, to screen Birth in a theater is to invite vandalism. I actually believe that Birth should be seen, but only in a historical context.

But Gone with the Wind plays in theaters, and gets yet another Blu-ray release, with very little controversy. My copy has a disc filled with over eight hours of extras, in which I found only one suggestion that there may be questionable content. Putting one short subject into historical perspective, a newly-recorded narration warns that some elements are “today considered unacceptable.” I don’t know why they couldn’t say the same about the feature.

Gone with the Wind is still a popular film, and to some degree, I can see why. The first half is a thrilling, exciting epic about the collapse of a civilization, beautifully staged and shot. The picture bogs down in the post-war second half. That’s when I find myself waiting for enough main characters to die so it can end. But even in that second half, it’s still gorgeous to look at.

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Production designer William Cameron Menzies took the six-year-old three-strip Technicolor format into new dimensions with his magnificent visuals. The colors seem hyper-realistic, yet they evoke the characters’ attitudes and emotions. Note the big ball sequence, awash with colorful costumes. But Scarlett and Rhett are dressed in black, drawing our eyes to them and reminding us that they will eventually fall in love (unfortunately, I couldn’t find a good still from that scene). With Gone With the Wind, color stopped being a gimmick, and became part of the story.

And yet, in another sense of the word, color is the problem. This isn’t just a beautifully-designed and rousing epic that turns boring after the intermission. It’s a reminder of just how acceptable racism was in American a scant 75 years ago. And as long as the film is regularly shown without discussion of that context, our problem with race won’t get any better.

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