Last Year at Marienbad

I first time I saw Last Year at Marienbad in college, in the 1970s. The teachers didn’t tell us what to expect, they just gathered several classes together in the auditorium and screened this “important film.” I found it deathly boring. We all did. One friend said it needed a pie fight–or even the Three Stooges.

The teachers were shocked at our response.

About a year ago, I decided to give it another chance. After missing a screening at the Pacific Film Archive, I put it in my Netflix queue. This week, it finally reached the top, and I watched it for a second time last night.

My opinion improved, but not by much. It’s still slow and pretentious, and gives you almost no information about the people onscreen (I hesitate to call them characters) and no reason whatsoever to care if they live or die. But the film is visually striking and technically dazzling, and if you’re willing to meet it halfway, it has a certain hypnotic charm.

Too bad it refuses to meet you halfway.

Photographed with the technical care of a Hollywood spectacle, Marienbad seems to care more about its setting than its story or characters. That setting is a very posh, upscale, and formal resort somewhere in Europe. The décor is plush and antique, with baroque furniture and decorations. The men wear dinner jackets, and the women expensive dresses. I would love to see what Buñuel might have done with this setting.

But Marienbad was directed by Alain Resnais, and despite the left-leaning themes of much of his work, he doesn’t seem particularly interested here in the discreet charm of the bourgeois. Indeed, he doesn’t seem interested in people, treating his actors as little more than animated statues–and when you come right down to it, they’re not all that animated. They barely move at all, and in some shots, only the moving camera tells you that you’re not looking at a still photo. (That’s actually pretty impressive, technically. The actors had to stay perfectly still, without even blinking, while the camera tracked around them. Today it could be done with computers.)

Eventually you figure out that two of these living statues are our protagonists. A man (like everyone else in this film, he’s never named, but the published screenplay calls him X and he’s played by Giorgio Albertazzi) tells a woman (A, played by Delphine Seyrig) that they met before and had a passionate affair–perhaps it was last year, and maybe in Marienbad. She’s skeptical. There’s another man (M, played by Sacha Pitoëff) involved. Perhaps he’s her husband.

Resnais and screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet are intentionally vague about what happened back then, what’s happening now, and what people are just imagining (or imagined back then). Although Seyrig has a few brief moments of actual acting, the leads rarely do more than stand in place and recite their lines in a slow monotone. That the film ends without your knowing what happened isn’t a problem; the problem is that you don’t care.

At least you get loads of atmosphere, and something to look at. The widescreen, black-and-white cinematography captures the luxurious setting in sumptuous detail. Endless hallways filled with bric-a-brac, huge gardens with statues and sculpted trees, and mirrors with ornate frames help relieve the boredom of the non-story–especially in the first half. I’m glad I saw this on the Criterion Blu-ray disc; on DVD, I might have hated it as much as the 16mm print I saw in college.

I still want to see The Three Stooges at Marienbad.

What’s Screening: November 26 – December 2

Amazing as this sounds, there are no festivals running this week. But there are some good movies.

Voices of Light/The Passion of Joan of Arc, Oakland Paramount, Thursday, 7:30. Although not as popular as the works of Keaton or Murnau, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 period drama The Passion of Joan of Arc carries a high reputation as one of the great works of silent film. (I saw it once, about 10 years ago, on DVD, and was considerably impressed.) Richard Einhorn’s composition Voices of Light is both a score for Dreyer’s film and a respected piece of music in its own right. The film and the music will come together Thursday night with a 22-piece orchestra, several choruses, and a 35mm print.

A- Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, VIZ Cinema, Saturday. If this isn’t a great film, it’s close. I’m tempted to call it several great short films that kind of hang together. By the end it works as a piece. A sort of impressionistic biopic of novelist and fascist hero Yukio Mishima, it cuts back and forth between the last day of his life (in color), flashbacks to his past (black and white), and dramatizations of three of his novels (hyper-color on stylized sets). The impression is of a brilliant lunatic, motivated by fears of aging, fantasies of a heroic death, and unease over his own homosexuality. See my post Mishima at MVFF for more.

A Woman of the Year, Castro, Saturday. One of only a handful of Hollywood films (Annie Hall is another) that accurately conveys the ups, downs, and sideways motions of romantic love as a long-term commitment. Sexist by today’s standard, this love story between two independently-minded professionals was cutting-edge feminist for its time (or at least as cutting-edge feminist as MGM would allow). And its sense of two people who love each other but can’t easily stay compatible never ages. It also started one of Hollywood’s most famous on-screen and real-life romances–that of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Directed by George Stevens from a screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin. On a double bill with Pat and Mike, and the first half of a two-day Tracy/Hepburn celebration.

B The Killers, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 8:00. Burt Lancaster’s breakthrough movie isn’t called the "Citizen Kane of film noir" because it’s the best of its genre, but because of its multiple flashback story structure. When a gas station attendant (Burt Lancaster) is murdered, an investigator starts asking questions and a life of crime is revealed. It’s a fun little movie, and it introduced Burt Lancaster to the world as the likeable thug whose murder sets all those flashbacks in motion. Ava Gardner plays the femme fatale who enjoys and exploits Lancaster’s beefcake lug.

C Sing-Along Sound of Music ,Castro, Thursday and the following Friday. Many people love it, but I find the biggest money maker of the 1960s lumbering, slow, andsoundofmusic dull. Not funny or romantic enough to be light entertainment, yet lacking the substance to be anything else. And as for the songs…in their last collaboration, Roger and Hammerstein were clearly running out of steam. On the other hand, the Todd-AO photography of Alpine landscapes makes this one of the most visually beautiful of Hollywood movies. I’ve never experienced a Sing-Along Sound of Music presentation, however. This might be something entirely different.

C Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Castro, Sunday. Stanley Kramer’s morality play about mixed marriage and tolerance is as dated as a 40-year-old movie can get. And not only the theme seems stale when we have a mixed-race president. The picture’s dialog, sexual prudery, and visual style (including an overdependence on rear projection, made necessary by Spencer Tracy’s ill health) must have seemed old-fashioned in 1967. But while Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner no longer works as entertainment or political argument, it now holds considerable interest as a relic–a preserved piece of Hollywood, and America, in transition. And who knows; without this movie, we might have a different president. As the second half of the Castro’s Tracy/Hepburn series, Guess Who is on a double-bill with Adam’s Rib, which I haven’t seen in many years. I remember it as an amusing and reasonably thoughtful satire of gender roles and identities, and a very funny supporting performance by Judy Holiday. If I’d seen it recently, I probably would be giving this double-bill a B.

Leaves From Satan’s Book at the PFA

I saw Carl Th. Dreyer’s Leaves From Satan’s Book at the Pacific Film Archive this afternoon. Made in 1919 through 1921, it’s easily the earliest Dreyer film I’ve yet seen. Judith Rosenberg accompanied this silent film on piano; a translation of the Danish intertitles were read aloud by someone who’s name I failed to get.

With its four stories set in different time periods, Leaves often gets compared to D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. In fact, there’s some controversy about whether Griffith’s film inspired this one. There’s one very big difference, however: Dreyer doesn’t cut back and forth between the stories. Presented in chronological order, one plays out to the end before the next one begins.

Each story has Satan (Helge Nissen), disguised as a mortal man, trying to tempt a basically good person to do evil—a plot device that takes the stories out of the realm of simple melodrama. Melodrama assumes that people do evil because they’re evil. Here people do evil because they’re scared, or because they can’t resist a temptation that they know is wrong.

And although this Satan does his best to tempt them, deep down he hopes they’ll resist. He has his reason. Every time someone resists temptation, Satan’s punishment is shortened by 1,000 years.

Satan’s human disguise is always a person of authority—often religious authority. In the first episode, about Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, he’s a Pharisee. In the second, set in 16-century Spain, he’s a leader of the Inquisition. In the third, about the French Revolution, he’s a revolutionary leader sentencing people to the guillotine (although he also turns up as a beggar/informer in that one). And in the last one, set in the 1918 war between Finland and newly-Soviet Russia (very contemporary history when the film was made), he’s a Communist officer who is also, inexplicitly, a monk. That’s a bit confusing. At one point, he reads from a book called the Communist Catechism, which has a cross on the cover. Maybe Dreyer didn’t know much about Communism.

The Inquisition and French Revolution sections are easily the best, dramatically and thematically. The first section suffers from Jesus’ presence—there’s not much drama with a character that perfect. And the final section, perhaps because it was too close to look at objectively, really does devolve into melodrama. But the 16th- and 18th-century stories hit a nerve. One involves a lustful monk who turns to the inquisition to take the object of his desire and her father. The other involves a former servant torn between his decent, human desire to protect his one-time bosses and the need to save his own neck.

The picture is filled with those penetrating close-ups that were such an important part of Dreyer’s style. No other filmmaker made such an art of discovering a soul by examining a face. Rosenberg did her usual excellent accompaniment, but the translations seemed wanting. Many times an intertitle that filled the screen with a great deal of Swedish text was translated into one or two short sentences. I found myself wanting more.

What’s Screening: November 19 – 25

The New Italian Cinema runs through Sunday, while the Chinese American Film Festival continues through Tuesday.

B Kings of Pastry, Balboa, Elmwood, Lark, opened last Wednesday. You may have seen, or heard of, two shows on The Food Channel kingsofpastrycalled Iron Chef and Ace of Cakes. Combine the two, and slow down the editing for people not suffering from ADD, and you’ve got Kings of Pastry. Legendary documentarians Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker joined forces  to document the grueling three-day event where 16 chefs strove for France’s Meilleur Ouvrier de France. coveted medal and collar. Hegedus and Pennebaker focus on one of these contestants: Jacquy Pfeiffer—a Frenchman now teaching at a culinary school in Chicago. But the movie’s real stars are the amazing-looking deserts. Read my full review.

Special Kings of Pastry Event, Balboa, Sunday, between the 3:00 and 5:05 screenings. The Bakers Dozen will be on hand with a wide selection of culinary treats.

A Double Bill: Raging Bull & Mishima, Castro, Wednesday. Martin Scorsese put a cap on 70’s cinema with Raging Bull, his study of boxer Jake La Motta. It isn’t an easy film to watch; the experience is not unlike a good pummeling, but it’s absolutely worth it. Robert De Niro gives one of the great physical performances in cinema, changing from a taut athlete to a man who has let himself go, and at no point does De Niro ask for our sympathy. Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is not a great film. It’s more like several great short films that kind of hang together, creating an image of novelist and fascist hero Yukio Mishima as a brilliant lunatic, motivated by fears of aging, fantasies of a heroic death, and unease over his own homosexuality. See my post Mishima at MVFF.

Silent Comedy Shorts, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. As usual, the museum is treating us to two-reelers by Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy. This week’s Lloyd entry, "Never Weaken," is my favorite of his shorts. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Keaton’s "The High Sign." It was his first film both as director and as lead star, and he didn’t care for it, much. I remember liking it. I know nothing about the Chaplin and L&H entries. Greg Pane accompanies everything on piano.

Ratings, Censorship, and the Weinstein Company

I just received word that the Weinstein Company is appealing ratings on two upcoming films. They’re objecting to the MPAA’s NC-17 rating for Blue Valentine, and an R rating for The King’s Speech.

I saw The King’s Speech at a press screening for the Mill Valley Film Festival, and liked it very much. (You’ll find my quick opinion here; my complete review that will go live on December 1st–two days before the film’s Bay Area release.) That this film would get an R rating seems utterly bizarre to me, except in the sense that bizarre ratings are, in themselves, pretty normal.

Yes, there’s one scene where Colin Firth says the word fuck multiple times. If he had said it only once, the film would get a PG-13 rating. I guess hearing it once will not hurt a 16-year-old’s purity, but three times will have them out on the street turning tricks.

I’ve seen PG-13 movies with sexually tinged torture scenes (Casino Royale) and discussions of oral sex (I Love You, Man). Those are apparently acceptable. But repeated use of an old, Anglo-Saxon word is out of the question.

I haven’t seen Blue Valentine, and thus have no opinion on it. But I’ll offer two opinions on the NC-17 rating:

  1. The real problem with this rating is cultural. If theaters didn’t refuse to show NC-17 movies, if newspapers didn’t refuse to accept advertising from them, and if churches didn’t protest them, these pictures would be economically viable. People should be able to make, distribute, present, and watch films too graphic for an R rating.
  2. In a world of home video, there’s no practical difference between the R and NC-17 rating. You can’t take your children to see an NC-17 movie in a theater, but you can show it to them at home. Thus, the distinction is meaningless.

Metropolis Blu-Ray

There’s so much good to say about Kino International’s forthcoming Metropolis Blu-ray disc (to be released November 23) that I may as well start with the disappointment:

Despite what we were told at this summer’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Kino bd_metropolishas not included the Alloy Orchestra’s powerful and unique score as an alternate soundtrack. That’s a real loss. As I pointed out back in July, "the Alloy Orchestra’s score brings out the film’s overall weirdness and the third act’s excitement better than any other Metropolis score I’ve heard." Besides, the more scores you can put on a silent film disc, the better.

But this disc contains only the original Gottfried Huppertz score, performed by the Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra. It’s an excellent score in its own right, and the one that director Fritz Lang presumably approved, but it’s rather conventional for such an unconventional movie. Kino does give you two options: You can listen to the score in 5.1 lossless surround or  2.0 stereo. But a second score would have been nice.

But enough about what might have been. Let’s look at the disc that Kino is calling The Complete Metropolis (although there’s still one missing scene).

You don’t have to break the shrink-wrap to be impressed with this package. The slip cover contains a hologram that takes two of Metropolis’ most famous images and turns them to 3D. (And no, the image above is not that cover, which cannot be reproduced online.)

As for the movie itself, here’s what I’ve been saying lately when it turns up at a local theater:

A The first important science fiction feature film still strikes a considerable visual punch,and with the latest restoration, tells a compelling story, as well. The images–workers in a hellish underground factory, the wealthy at play, a robot brought to life in the form of a beautiful woman–are a permanent part of our collective memory. Even people who haven’t seen Metropolis know them through the countless films it has influenced. Recently-discovered footage elevates the story of a clash between workers and aristocrats from trite melodrama to a tale of real people in an artificial world. Read my longer report.

That longer report discusses both the movie itself, and the restoration.

You can’t separate how this new restoration looks on Blu-ray from how it looks in theaters. It has not been transferred back onto film, and can only be projected digitally. In fact, although I didn’t know it at the time, the presentation I saw at the Castro was off a Blu-ray disc. As far as I know, the Film Forum presentation may have been projected that way, as well.

Four fifths of Metropolis looks incredible. This may not be the best silent film I’ve ever seen, but it’s close, and certainly the best I’ve seen in my own home. Everything is crisp and immediate, with a rich gray scale. You see the weave of people’s clothes and the small details on the giant sets.

The restored scenes in Metropolis look horrible.The other fifth, the newly-restored footage, looks horrible. It’s badly scratched, with the top and left side of the frame missing entirely. On the other hand, it’s a miracle it exists at all.

The best extra on the disc is "Voyage to Metropolis," a 50-minute documentary on the film’s production, release, and multiple restorations. Oddly, it barely mentions the 2001 restoration that contains everything that looks good in this one.

I agree with Roger Ebert: This Metropolis restoration is the classic film event of 2010. It just might be the restoration of the decade. You can now have it in your home, looking as good as it has in a very long time.

Too bad about the Alloy Orchestra, though.

Kings of Pastry

B Documentary

Directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker

Full Disclosure:I saw this film at a special screening Monday night at the Balboa, after which we were treated to some of the most incredible chocolate I have ever tasted. I’ll try to keep that from effecting my review.

You may have seen, or heard of, two shows on The Food Channel called Iron Chef and Ace of Cakes. Combine the two, and slow down the editing for people not suffering from ADD, and you’ve got Kings of Pastry.

Actors want Oscars, singers want Grammies, and every pastry chef in France wants the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (abbreviated MOF, and translated roughly as "Best Craftsman in France"). This award marks you as a creator of truly great baked deserts–as pleasing to the eye as to the palette.

Legendary documentarians Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker joined forces (not for the first time) to document the grueling three-day event where 16 chefs strove for kingsofpastrythe coveted medal and collar. This is an unusual subject for both of them. Hegedus does primarily political documentaries (The War Room, Al Franken: God Spoke), while Pennebaker is best known for two rock music films he made back in the 1960’s: Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop.

The MOF event is not a competition. The judges will give this award to any contestant they believe has earned it. The chefs provide each other with moral support, and the judges seem to care deeply that everyone does well. When disaster hits one chef, everyone reacts with genuine compassion.

Which isn’t to say that this is a pre-school sporting event where everyone gets a prize. Only a handful of the sixteen contestants—all of whom beat out plenty of others to get this far–will receive the MOF.

Hegedus and Pennebaker focus on one of these contestants: Jacquy Pfeiffer. A Frenchman now teaching at a culinary school in Chicago, Pfeiffer returns to his native land to follow a life-long dream. He comes off as a likeable man, hard-working but well-rounded. He has a life outside of his career, including a loving girlfriend and children. But he’s hardly the sort of fascinating character who can really carry the center of a documentary. If he had been, I probably would have given Kings of Pastry an A.

But the movie’s real stars aren’t the people, but their creations. These aren’t pastries in the sense of what you would normally buy at a bakery. These are sculptures made out of fattening materials. How these artists manipulate assorted forms of sugar, chocolate, butter, and flour into swirling waves, soaring birds, and other creations is just amazing. The results look beautiful, but to be honest, they’re not really appetizing.

On the other hand, the chocolate served after the screening didn’t look exceptional, but was delicious. It was from a local company called Tcho. I’d give it an A+.

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