And here’s something that doesn’t happen often: Saturday, you can choose between two great French silent films, each accompanied by a full orchestra, playing within five miles of each other.
A+ Napoleon, Oakland Paramount, Saturday and Sunday, 1:30. To call this the biggest Bay Area movie event in recent memory would be a gross understatement. This is the only engagement of Napoleon, in its near-complete form, outside of Europe. No other film I’ve seen uses the camera and the editor’s scissors quite like this one. Director Able Gance put the camera on a pendulum and swung it over heated political arguments, cut so swiftly that many shots are almost subliminal, and used double exposure expressively. And then, for the closing, he opened up the screen to three times its original width. And all of these innovations serve of the story. Carl Davis’s score, which he conducts with the Oakland Symphony, added zeal, depth, and beauty. This weekend will be your last chance ever to enjoy this amazing experience. Read my full report.
A+ Voices of Light/The Passion of Joan of Arc, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, Saturday, 8:00. Few cinematic dramas, silent or otherwise, surpass Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Based on transcripts from Joan’s 15th century trial for heresy, Dreyer’s film concentrates on people–not myths. Renée Jeanne Falconetti plays Joan as an illiterate, 19-year-old peasant girl in way over her head and terrified. Then there’s the music. Richard Einhorn composed Voices of Light in 1994, both as a score for Passion and as a separate work that stands on its own. But blended together, the film and the music create an altogether unique and powerful meditation on faith and oppression. I attended a Voices/Passion presentation in 2010, and found it "the greatest film/live music experience of my 40+ years as a silent film aficionado." This time around, the music will be performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the UC Choral Ensembles.
Kevin Brownlow: “Abel Gance’s Napoleon, A Restoration Project Spanning a Lifetime”, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00. Never mind. It’s sold out. Damn it!
Niles Studio 100th Anniversary, at and around the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Sunday (movie program starts at 2:30). On April 1, 1912, Gilbert Anderson (born Max Aronson and best known as Broncho Bill Anderson) opened Essanay’s West Coast studio in Niles, and this Sunday the town celebrates. There’s the steam train, a brass band, a party in the plaza, and several movies (mostly documentaries about the studio). Appropriate costumes are encouraged.
A- The Thing from Another World, Pacific Film Archive, Tuesday, 7:00. Christian Nyby officially directed it, but most historians agree that producer Howard Hawks actually called the shots. Whoever directed this story of a predatory alien loose on an isolated, arctic army base, wisely kept the guy in the rubber suit off camera as much as possible. Much scarier that way. But like so many Hawks movies, this isn’t so much about the plot as it is about the camaraderie between a mostly–but not entirely–male group of professionals. Part of the series Howard Hawks: The Measure of Man.
Sodankylä Forever: The Century of the Cinema and The Yearning for the First Cinema Experience, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Sunday, 2:00. In the first program in the YBCA’s Great Directors Speak series, clips of film directors discussing their early lives give us a history of the 20th century, as well as their first experiences going to the movies. All of the recorded discussions come from the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Sodankylä, Finland.
A The Roaring Twenties, Stanford, Tuesday through Thursday. Interesting how the best gangster movie of the 1930s arrived years after the genre had run down. Perhaps historical perspective helped. James Cagney returns home from WWI, discovers that he can’t get an honest job, and then finds work in a new, emerging industry–bootlegging. He rises to the top of the racket, only to discover that it won’t bring him happiness, a nice girl, or security. Humphrey Bogart, on the edge of stardom, plays a much less sympathetic hoodlum. On a double bill with something called Four Daughters.
Double Bill: John Cassavetes & Marcel Ophuls and Jean-Luc Godard: The Meeting in St-Gervais, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thursday, 7:30. Documentarian André S. Labarthe follows a young Cassavetes around as the filmmaker talks about his then current project, Faces. In the other feature, two very different pillars of French cinema discuss many topics in a Geneva theater.
A Red Desert, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:10. No one has ever called Michelangelo Antonioni’s study of pollution and madness a thriller, yet it filled me with a sense of foreboding and dread that Alfred Hitchcock seldom matched. Monica Vitti holds the screen as a housewife and mother struggling to maintain her slipping sanity. It’s no surprise she’s breaking down; her husband manages a large plant that’s spewing poison into the air, water, and ground (Antonioni made absolutely sure that his first color film would not be beautiful). Through her mental deterioration, she plans to open a shop (without any clear idea of what she’ll sell), flirts with one of her husband’s co-workers (Richard Harris, dubbed into Italian), worries about disease, and attends a party that stops just short of an orgy. Carlo Di Palma’s brilliant camerawork adds to the sense of mental isolation; I’ve never seen out-of-focus images used so effectively.
A+ The Godfather, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. Francis Coppola, taking the job simply because he needed the money, turned Mario Puzo’s potboiler into the Great American Crime Epic. Marlon Brando may have top billing, but Al Pacino owns the film (and became a star) as Michael Corleone, the respectable son inevitably and reluctantly pulled into a life of crime he doesn’t want but for which he seems exceptionally well-suited. A masterpiece, recently restored by the master of the craft, Robert A. Harris.
B+ Sing-Along Wizard of Oz, Castro, Friday through Sunday. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving it a B+. Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion), The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else sees. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A. I haven’t experienced the sing-a-long version.