What’s Screening: November 30 – December 6

Sorry I haven’t been writing much, lately. Alas, professional and family matters have been getting in the way of blogging. I hope to get back to more Bayflicks posting soon.

Despite my absence, the Another Hole in the Head Film Festival continues through this week and beyond.

Also, this week I add the New Parkway to my theater list. Their web site promises that the theater will open today (Friday, October 30), but as I write this, I have no idea if they’ll make that deadline or what they’ll be screening of they do.

So with those out of the way, here’s what I can tell you about this week.

Alice in Wonderland (the 1976, X-rated version), Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thursday, 7:30. I haven’t seen Alice in close to 30 years, but I have fond memories of this innocently perverse comedy–probably the best of the X-rated sex parodies of the 1970s. I saw the original, soft-X version twice at the UC Theatre (of blessed memory). I loved it both times, and so did my dates. A few years later, soon after I got my first VCR, I rented the hardcore home video version (apparently Alice was shot hardcore, but originally edited soft to play in more theaters). A lot of the warmth and humor was lost in the close-ups of what appeared to be hairy, fleshy piston engines. Fortunately, the YBCA will screen the original, softcore version.

B+ The Truman Show, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 5:20. Before reality television reared its mediocre head, writer Andrew Niccol and director Peter Weir foresaw it in this comic fable about a man raised unknowingly in a giant television studio. Although prophetic in many ways, The Truman Show takes the concept way beyond plausibility, suggesting a television show that goes way beyond economic and legal possibilities (which is why I call it a fable). A few months after this picture came out, The Ed Show offered a far more realistic prophesy of reality TV. Hosted by David Thomson.

A Pulp Fiction, in a great many multiplexes, Thursday. Quentin Tarantino achieved pulpfictioncult status by writing and directing this witty mesh of interrelated stories involving talkative killers, a crooked boxer, romantic armed robbers, and a former POW who hid a watch in a very uncomfortable place. Tarantino entertainingly plays with dialog, story-telling techniques, non-linear time, and any sense the audience may have of right and wrong.

A- A Christmas Story, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday; Kabuki & various CineMark Theaters, Wednesday. Sweet, sentimental Christmas movies, at least those not authored by Charles Dickens or Frank Capra, generally make me want to throw up. But writer Jean Shepherd’s look back at the Indiana Christmases of his youth comes with enough laughs and cynicism to make the nostalgia go down easy. A holiday gem for people who love, or hate, the holidays.

B- Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death and Technology, Rafael, Sunday, 7:00. Tiffany Shlain had Tree-of-Life-level ambitions for her documentary about life, human evolution, networking, her father’s terminal cancer, and her own difficult pregnancy. She reached for profundity, but achieved only entertainment. Like most autobiographical documentaries, much ofConnected Connected comes off as self-centered. But more of it is Daddy-centered, as the movie worships her father (surgeon and best-selling author Leonard Shlain) to the point of idolatry. While this is emotionally understandable—she made the film while he was dying—it’s not good filmmaking. When not dealing with family health problems, Connected looks at the networks human beings have created, and the essential connectedness of everything. In doing so, it offers no insights that a reasonably educated and curious person would not have found elsewhere. Some clever, informative, and often funny cartoons (animated by Stefan Nadelman) and some amusing old movie clips  make Connected enjoyable. Filmmaker Shlain in person.

C Sing-Along Sound of Music, Castro, through Sunday. Many people love it, but I find the biggest money maker of the 1960s lumbering, slow, and dull. Not funny or romantic enough to be light entertainment, yet lacking the substance to be anything else. And most of the songs give the impression that, by their last collaboration, Roger and Hammerstein had run 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, so this might be something entirely different.

What’s Screening: November 23 – 29

After all the film festivals we’ve had lately, you might feel that the Bay Area needs another one like it needs another hole in the head. And so, appropriately enough, the Another Hole in the Head Film Festival opens Wednesday.

Here’s what else is going on:

A McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Vogue, Thursday, 8:00 (movie starts at 9:00). Few people realize, at least on first viewing, how much the plot of Robert Altman’s genre-bending mood poem resembles a traditional western: A lone stranger with a violent reputation rides into a remote frontier town, tries to settle down to a peaceful existence, and eventually finds himself menaced by a trio of hired killers. Yet there’s nothing conventional about this sad yet beautiful tale of prostitution, alienated community, unrequited love, and a west that seems not so much wild as stranded in the middle of nowhere. Vilmos Zsigmond’s golden Panavision cinematography makes this one of the most perfectly photographed films ever made. Proceeded by a musical performance by Conspiracy of Beards.

A+ The Third Man, Rafael, Sunday, 7:00. Classic film noir with an international flavor. An American pulp novelist (Joseph Cotten) arrives in thirdmanimpoverished, divided post-war Vienna to meet up with an old friend who has promised him a much-needed job. But he soon discovers that the friend is both a wanted criminal and newly dead. Or is he? Writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed place an intriguing mystery inside a world so dark and disillusioned that American noir seems tame by comparison. Then, when the movie is two thirds over, Orson Welles comes onscreen to steal everything but the sprocket holes. Presented by David Thomson.

Trailer War!, Roxie, Thursday, 8:00. Ever go to the movies, enjoy four or five entertaining trailers, only to then sit through a horribly boring feature? No danger of that here. Instead of a feature, the Roxie will screen "A meticulous selection of the best, strangest and most amazing trailers in the world! From the high flying, explosive metal mayhem of STUNT ROCK to THUNDER COPS’ disembodied flying head chaos…"

All the Trimmings: A Cornucopia of Comedy, Cartoons and Music, Oddball Films, Friday, 8:00. Short subjects from Buster Keaton, Chuck Jones, Laurel and Hardy, Jonathan Winters, Betty Hutton, and others. Sounds like a great way to spend an evening. RSVP required; 415-558-8117 or programming@oddballfilm.com.

A Beauty and the Beast, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 7:20. I’d be hard-pressed to think of another film that’s anything like Jean Cocteau’s post-war fantasy. It’s a fairytale, told with a charming and often naïve innocence, and contains absolutely no objectionable-for-children content. It’s also a supremely atmospheric motion picture, and one that takes its magical story seriously. But its slow pace and quiet magic never panders to unsophisticated viewers. And yet, I once saw a very young audience sit enraptured by it. See my Blu-ray review. Part of the series Grand Illusions: French Cinema Classics, 1928–1960.

C Sing-Along Sound of Music, Castro, opens Friday and continues through December 2.. Many people love it, but I find the biggest money maker of the 1960s lumbering, slow, and dull. Not funny or romantic enough to be light entertainment, yet lacking the substance to be anything else. And most of the songs give the impression that, by their last collaboration, Roger and Hammerstein had run 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.

Hendrix 70: Live at Woodstock, Embarcadero, Shattuck, Thursday, 7:00. The classic rockumentary Woodstock ends with two songs by Jimi Hendrix/. Now, you’ll get to see his entire performance at that legendary festival. Also on the bill: the documentary "Road to Woodstock."

D+ The Three Ages, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30.  Buster Keaton’s first and worst feature tells the same story three times—in caveman days, imperial Rome, and modern times—intercutting between them. The result is a thin story told thrice, with a lot of forced anachronistic humor, and only occasional flashes of Keaton genius–including one of his most spectacular falls. The film’s structure suggests that Keaton didn’t yet feel ready to make a feature, and the film as a whole suggests that his intuition was right. With the short subjects "Koko’s Thanksgiving" and "The Caretaker’s Daughter." Frederick Hodges will accompany on piano.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister

This is another of my “held” reviews. I reviewed this film before it screened at the 2010 Frameline festival. At the time, I wrote a full review, which I planned to post just before the picture’s full release. More than two years later, it  still hasn’t been released. So I’m posting this now.

B Period drama

  • Written by Jane English
  • Directed by James Kent
Think of this as a lesbian Merchant-Ivory picture. It’s set in England in the early 19th century. There’s plenty of top hats, bustles, corsets, and very proper diction. You’ve got great British actors behaving in civilized and polite ways, while barely containing the passions on the inside.

Merchant-Ivory films (and their imitations) have always been about suppressed sexual feelings, so the form seems appropriate for a gay romantic drama. The idea seems, in fact, quite promising.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister doesn’t quite live up to that promise, but it’s diaryannelister a more than respectable effort. Miss Lister has a story worth telling, and screenwriter Jane English and director James Kent show grace and economy in the telling of it. (Besides, if someone is going to make a movie about very proper Brits, shouldn’t their names be Jane English and James Kent?)

A disclaimer of sorts: I saw this film on a DVD screener before it opened the 2010 Frameline festival. The version I saw was unfinished, missing some off-screen dialog, other sounds, at least one special effect, and even closing credits. I suspect the music was a temporary track. Subtitles occasionally told me what I should be hearing. The final film may be better than what I experienced. On the other hand, I may have overcompensated, so it could be worse.

English based her screenplay on the diaries of an actual highborn lady–one who never married. At least, Anne Lister never married a man. When we first meet Anne (Maxine Peake) she’s living with her uncle and aunt (brother and sister—they never married, either), and very much in love with the beautiful Mariana (Anna Madeley). It’s mutual, and Anne speaks of them running off and living together. Then Mariana marries an old man for his money, and Anne is left unsure where she stands.

Anne defies conventions enough to start rumors (which are, of course, all true), but the story isn’t about this courageous woman fighting society’s norms. It’s about a woman who must hide her love, and who doesn’t know if her love still loves her.

There’s nothing unique or troubling about The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (at least if you’re not a member of the religious right). But it’s an entertaining enough journey into a life with unique challenges, and into a time and place close enough to our own to be understandable, but far away enough to seem exotic.

From 35mm to DCP: My Thoughts on a Critical Symposium

The current issue of Cineaste Magazine contains a symposium article on the digital transition.

Fueled by a conviction that this transition brings with it important and wide-ranging repercussions with regard to film culture, and that it’s critical to investigate and debate these consequences, we have organized this Critical Symposium, inviting a range of people—repertory cinema programmers, studio representatives, critics, and scholars—to respond to a questionnaire on the topic. The responses represent a range of different perspectives on this momentous period in the history of film exhibition, a sea change that is nevertheless going largely un-noticed in the culture at large.

You have to buy the print edition to read the full article (mine is in the mail), but the introduction is available online. This introduction lists the six questions asked of the participants. I thought I’d answer them myself.

1) How would you characterize the losses involved in the transition away from the exhibition of traditional film prints, especially with regard to the digital projection of works originally shot on film? The benefits?
Outside of a few popular classics, older films will, I fear, no longer be screened theatrically. This could happen because of revival theaters unable to survive the transition economically, and through studios not bothering to prepare DCPs of obscure works.

One obvious benefit is that the popular classics are more available theatrically than any time since the 1970s. Mainstream multiplexes are now screening The Godfather, Vertigo, and others one or two nights a week.

Another benefit is that we won’t have to deal with scratched and faded prints.

2) How conscious do you think the average viewer is of the difference between film and digital projection? Do you think this awareness is important? And, if so, what can be done to foster it?
I don’t believe most of them know there’s a difference. Nor, really, should they.

From the point of view of the theater owner, the digital transition is like the talkie revolution–a very expensive upgrade. But from the audience point of view, it’s more like the switch from nitrate film to acetate–too minor to be noticed.

3) What’s your attitude toward the idea that focusing on the particular qualities of 35mm and 16mm film projection amounts to a kind of fetishism? Are there dangers on both ends of the spectrum?
For many people it has become a fetish. Nowadays, film artifacts that everyone used to complain about–scratches, dirt, bob and weave–make it "authentic." It isn’t the talent of Kurosawa, Bergman, or Welles that made great art, it’s 35mm film with real scratches.

I strongly suspect that if you mounted a digital projector’s image chips on a subtle vibrator, put a butterfly shutter in front of the lens, and added software to the server that produced random scratches, a DCP would be indistinguishable from film.

Contrary to many cinephiles’ opinions, this is not the death of cinema. Compared to other changes in cinema’s history–sound, color, widescreen–this is minor.

Yes, I’ve heard all of the arguments. These pictures were shot on film and meant to be shown on film. And if you can screen an original print in excellent condition, I would agree. But that’s not the reality of revival cinema.

Last month, I attended a screening of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, newly restored, on DCP. The film was originally intended to be shown on nitrate, dye-transfer Technicolor prints, illuminated by a carbon arc (and believe me, I’d love to see it that way). But I’m not convinced that a modern, polyester, Eastmancolor print, illuminated by a Xeon bulb, is any closer to the original than a DCP.

4) Given the enormous costs of upgrading to digital projection, is there any way to avoid losing hundreds or thousands of smaller cinemas? And, if not, how will this affect film culture?
This is the part that scares me. I don’t know a way to save those theaters, and a lot of cinematic heritage will be lost when they close.

On the other hand, I think there’s a good chance that small theaters will come back in a decade or so. Moore’s Law doesn’t just mean that digital technology gets more powerful; it also means that it gets cheaper. In a few years, when the cost of digital projection drops, we may see a resurgence of these theaters.

That’s cold comfort, of course, for the people who own the theaters. And for those of us who don’t want to go years with nothing but big multiplexes.

Another consideration: Blu-ray discs look more than just passible on a good projector. They don’t measure up to a pristine 35mm print, but they look better than a worn and scratched print, and they’re relatively cheap to project. If the number of classics on Blu-ray increases, theaters may be survive showing these.

5) Will more than a small fraction of film history be treated to the deluxe digital restoration treatment? How great is the likelihood that many films will not make the leap and will be effectively lost? And for those that are transferred to digital, will the transfers tend to be overseen by technicians with a genuine sensitivity to the qualities of the originals?
The ideal solution–every film gets a full restoration by people who know what they’re doing–ain’t gonna happen. The money simply isn’t there.

On the other hand, even in the analog world, only a small fraction got a full restoration. Lesser films, at best, merely get preserved. A new negative and a print are struck from the best remaining source. Preserved films generally carry the scars of time that restoration erases.

So the question becomes: Will it be economical to digitally preserve films for which there’s no money to restore. That could happen if the technology gets good enough and cheap enough. Hopefully, that will happen.

If not, many of these films will become unavailable as archives become reluctant to send out prints to the remaining 35mm-equipped theaters. And that’s a damn shame.

6) If there are any issues or consequences resulting from the transition to digital exhibition that you feel have not been touched upon by the questions above, please feel free to identify or address them with further comments.
One major issue, and one big question:

The issue: Archiving the films for future generations. We know how to store film with reasonable protection; we don’t know how to archive bits.

At this point, we need a two-prong approach to this problem. First, the archives and the studios must jointly develop and agree to a standard (for hardware and software) for archiving digital motion pictures, publish the specs for that standard, and make sure that all improvements to the standard are backward compatible.

Second, everything needs to be archived on film, including new movies not shot or projected that way. Because we have no way of knowing for sure that the digital archiving system will work.

The question: If you’re going to prepare an old classic for Blu-ray release, how much more does it cost to also create a DCP master? Or, to put it another way, how come there are old movies available for home use on Blu-ray that are not available to theaters in DCP?

What’s Screening: November 16 – 22

The fall festivals are winding down. The Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival closes on Sunday, and Doc Fest finishes on Wednesday.

A Hava Nagila (The Movie), Camera 12, Sunday, 5:30. Hava Nagila, a documentary about the famous tune, doesn’t take itself too seriously. hava_nagilaEven the titles that introduce interview subjects make casual jokes. This fun and joyful movie about a fun and joyful song still manages to inform audiences as well as any more serious doc. The tune was born in Chasidic Eastern Europe as a nigun (a wordless song used in prayer), and the happy lyrics were added by an early Zionist–although which early Zionist is a matter of debate. Hava Nagila never lost its Jewish identity, even as it became a major hit for Harry Belafonte and a tune known all around the world. This rare documentary will have you laughing, clapping, and tapping your feet, and give you new appreciation of a tune you’ve heard all of your life. Read my full report. The closing screening for this year’s Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival.

B+ Comedy Short Subject Night, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. This month’s collection includes one real. two-reel gem–the Max Davidson short "Pass the Gravy." I don’t want to give away too much about this Hal Roach minor masterpiece—let’s just say it involves feuding fathers, young people in love, a prize chicken, and one of the funniest dinners on film. The Chaplin entry, "Behind the Screen," is amusing, but not exceptionally so. It has one magical moment when heavy Eric Campbell thinks he caught Charlie kissing another man. Buster Keaton’s "The Blacksmith" isn’t one of his best shorts, but it has moments of sheer genius. I haven’t seen the Laurel & Hardy entry, "The Second Hundred Years." Greg Pane accompanies on the piano.

A+ Grand Illusion, Castro, Saturday. Set in a POW camp during World War I (and made two years before WW2), Grand Illusion sets the conflicts of nationality and class against the healing power of our common humanity. The French prisoners and their German guards try their best to be civilized in a world where civilization is all but outlawed. Jean Gabin stars as a French officer of common stock, but you’ll likely remember Erich von Stroheim as an aristocratic German facing the end of his way of life. The original negative was discovered and the film restored in the 1990s, but the new restoration (which I haven’t seen), is supposed to beat even that. On a double bill with another newly-restored French classic starring Jean Gabin,  Marcel Carné’s Port of Shadows (which I haven’t seen).

A Shadow of a Doubt, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. In Alfred Hitchcock’s first great American film, a serial killer (Joseph Cotton at his most charming) returns to his small-town roots. When his favorite niece (Teresa Wright) begins to suspect that all is not right with her beloved Uncle Charlie, her own life is in danger. Cotton’s performance makes the movie. Most of the time he’s warm, friendly, and relaxed. But he can turn brooding and dark, and say things that no well-adjusted person could possibly say. Written by Thorton Wilder, best remembered for the play Our Town. The locations were shot in Santa Rosa. On a double bill with Back Street, which I haven’t seen.

C+ The Rules of the Game, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30. I know; everyone else considers this one of cinema’s great masterpieces–an immensely important influence on many filmmakers (one can hardly imagine Robert Altman’s career without it). And yes, I’ve read all about its deep and important commentary on the class system and the institution of marriage. But all I see is a modest comedy of manners without much comedy and nothing exceptional to say about our manners. For me, Grand Illusion remains Renior’s masterpiece. Part of the series Grand Illusions: French Cinema Classics, 1928–1960.

None Too Keene: Nancy Drew Noir, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 2:00. I’ve never read a Nancy Drew novel, nor seen any of the movies, so I have nothing to say about them. (I did read the male equivalent, the Hardy Boy books, when I was a a kid.) This special event, with king of noir Eddie Muller in attendance, will include a screening of the 1939 B movie Nancy Drew, Girl Reporter. Also included: a Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys book swap and sale.

B The Big Lebowski, Castro, Wednesday. Critics originally big_lebowski[1]panned this Coen Brothers gem as a disappointing follow-up to their previous endeavor, Fargo. Well, it isn’t as good as the Coen’s masterpiece, but it’s still one hell of a funny movie. It’s also built quite a cult following;The Big Lebowski has probably played more Bay Area one-night stands in the years I’ve maintained this site than than any three other movies put together. On a double bill with Thunderbold and Lightfoot.

How Many Films are Still Shot on Film

When I tell people who work in technology, but not in cinema, that most professional, theatrical movies are still shot on film, they find that shocking. It seems counterintuitive.

Well, of course most filmmakers still shoot on film. It looks better–whether it’s projected on film or digital.

Or do they? And does it really look better?

Since I’m not Karl Rove, I decided to test my assumption against reality. And reality won. The fact is that, based on a quick survey, more current films are shot digitally. Depending on how you count them, it could be a lot more films.

To find out, I checked out movies listed as playing "near you" by IMDb, going to each film’s Full Technical Specs page to see how they were shot. The "near you" page lists 50 films, but I only counted 34 in the survey. Why? Since I wanted a snapshot of new films, I skipped those dated earlier than 2012. Others I skipped because their IMDb page lacked technical specs.

I came out with 21 films shot digitally, and only 13 shot on film. That’s nearly two thirds of the pictures shot digitally.

On the other hand, those 21 digitally-shot movies included four animated pictures, two live action ones shot in 3D, and one "found footage" mockumentary. Since it’s pretty much unthinkable to shoot any of these genres on film these days, perhaps they should be disqualified. The filmmakers really didn’t have a choice to shoot them on film.

If we consider only pictures that might have been shot on film, the numbers become much more even–14 shot digitally vs. 13 shot on film. Nate Silver would probably tell you that, considering the small sample size, this is a statistical tie.

Does the change bother me? No. It’s inevitable, and as digital cameras improve, the differences become irrelevant. I saw Skyfall a couple of nights ago, sitting close to the screen at the Cerrito. It looked gorgeous. I only discovered afterwards that it was shot with the Arri Alexa–a digital camera. This isn’t the first time that I’ve seen what I assumed was film, and later discovered was the Alexa.

If digital looks this good, I have no complaints.

Blu-ray Review: Rashomon

As I watched Criterion’s beautiful new Blu-ray edition of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, I noticed how patterns of three ripple through this masterpiece. You have, of course, the love triangle (well, more like a lust and violence triangle) that centers the story. But you also have the three men under the Rashomon gate. And the three intertwined locations where the complex story is told.

I’ve written about Rashomon before, specifically in Kurosawa Diary, Part 7: Rashomon. There, I wrote about where it stood in relation to Kurosawa’s films before and after it. This time, I’ll concentrate on the film itself.

In medieval Japan, a notorious bandit waylays a high-born couple in the woods, ties up the husband, and rapes the wife. The husband is killed, but who killed him and how? This story is told in flashbacks, and in flashbacks within flashbacks. They contradict each other.

Kurosawa, a director known for long and expensive epics, made Rashomon as a chamber piece. It runs less than 90 minutes, contains only eight actors, and was shot entirely out of doors during daylight hours. Not a frame is wasted.

The entire story is told within three locations, cutting back and forth between them. When the film moves to a different location, it also moves to a different time. Or more precisely, to a flashback.

The framing story is set under the large Rashomon gate, already a crumbling ruin when the story is set. Three men take refuge there from a rainstorm. They talk about a police investigation. Two of them gave testimony as witnesses, and they’re shocked by the contradictory stories and the larger implications of such contradictions. The third man, a cynic, enjoys listening to their stories and mocks them for their concern.

The second setting, also a framing story, appears to be a police yard. All we see is the ground, a wall, and people talking to an unheard, off-screen presence–presumably an investigator. Even the dead man, speaking through a medium, tells his version of what happened in the forest.

That forest is the third setting, and shows the incidents that fuel what everyone says in the others. Once again, it concentrates on three people–the no-love triangle that fuels the story. The husband shows utter contempt for everyone, including his wife (especially after she’s been raped). The bandit, motivated by a lust he confuses with love, wants to marry the woman whose life he has just ruined. And the wife, with no possible choices within the framework of her strict society, manipulates both men for ends she’s not entirely sure of.

The film also contains what I believe are Kurosawa’s first two swordfights–or, more accurately, two very different versions of the same swordfight. From the winner’s point of view, the duel is as romantic and exciting as anything with Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone. But from the point of view of a third party, comic ineptitude reigns, at least until the fight becomes, in its own clumsy way, frighteningly deadly.

Here, finally in high-def, is one of the best films by the world’s greatest filmmaker. You can’t possibly expect me to be objective.

imageFirst impression

This single disc package comes in a slightly thicker-than-usual clear plastic case. The front cover sports a color illustration of star Toshiro Mifune by Eric Skillman.

In addition to the disc, the case includes a 44-page booklet, which includes the film’s cast and credits, two essays (by Stephen Prince and Kurosawa himself, excerpted from his autobiography), the two short stories that the screenplay was based on, and "About the Transfer." The book also contains additional Skillman illustrations.

How it looks

Rashomon is a movie of textures. Dappled light coming through the leaves. Bright sunlight and flickering shade. Torrential rain. Human skin, wet and beaded with sweat. Photographed by the great Kazuo Miyagawa, it’s one of the most beautifully photographed black and white films ever shot.

Unfortunately, time has not been good to Rashomon‘s original source material. The camera negative and the prints made from it are warped, torn, and in poor condition. Fortunately, the film was painstakingly restored in 2008, and while the restoration didn’t quite bring it up to the original sparkling quality, it got close.

This Blu-ray is one major beneficiary of that restoration. I can’t call it consistent, but much of it glistens with the light, shadow, and wetness of Kurosawa’s and Miyagawa’s images. And even at it’s weak points, the transfer is still passible.

Except for one odd error. About 25 minutes into the movie, something really strange happens in one of those Kurosawa-patented wipes. As the wipe moves from left to right, replacing one shot with another, an extra bit of new shot appears on the left. I’ve never seen this problem before, and it’s certainly not on the older DVD.

How It Sounds

As usual, Criterion provides us with the original mix as an uncompressed PCM soundtrack. The audio strains a bit in loud scenes, but that’s the limits of 1950 Japanese sound recording, not of the disc. This is certainly as good, and probably better, than what Kurosawa originally signed off on.

The disc also comes with a Dolby Digital, laughably-bad, dubbed English-language track. Here, the actors all speak English with fake Japanese accents.

And the Exras

By Criterion standards, the offerings aren’t extraordinary. Most of them came with Criterion’s original DVD release. All of the video extras look like standard definition.

  • Commentary by Donald Richie. His voice is a little dull, but what he says is usually interesting. He talks about composition, character, editing, and plenty more.
  • Robert Altman on Rashomon: 7 minutes. Not that interesting.
  • The World of Kazuo Miyagawa: 13 minutes . Excerpt from a Japanese TV documentary about the cinematographer. Really fascinating.
  • NEW: A Testimony as an Image: 68 minutes. Rashomon script supervisor Teruuyo Nogami interviews people she worked with while making the film. Badly shot and edited, but be patient and you’ll get to some good stories.
  • NEW: Interview with Takashi Shimura: 16 minutes. Audio, only. A 1961 radio interview with the actor by Gideon Bachmann, with Donald Richie translating.
  • Original trailer:

Beautiful, exciting, depressing, existential, and in its final moments inspiring, Rashomon belongs on any list of great motion pictures. At least, that’s how I remember it.

What’s Screening: November 9 – 15

The Italian Film Festival closes Saturday night, but New Italian Cinema opens tonight and runs through the weekend. Both Doc Fest and the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival continue through this week and beyond. Cinema by the Bay opens today and runs through the week.

B- Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. Howard Hawks’ musical battle of the sexes contains a handful of wonderful dance numbers and some good comic moments, but there are too many weak scenes to wholeheartedly recommend it. The real surprise is in the leading ladies. Gentlemen helpedturn Marilyn Monroe into a star, but co-star Jane Russell blows her out of the water, giving a far funnier and sexier performance.

Rebel Without a Cause, Castro, Friday. I haven’t seen the iconic teenage rebel movie (also the iconic James Dean flick) in well over a decade, so I won’t try to give it a grade. I remember it being touching, thoughtful, melodramatic, and over-the-top silly–yet it all seemed to work. One more thing: I remember it being unusually sexist–not so much  in its treatment of women but in its sense of proper and acceptable masculinity. On a double bill with This Property is Condemned (which I haven’t seen), this is the opening night presentation of a very special, three-day tribute to the late Natalie Wood.

A+ Grand Illusion, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30. Set in a POW camp during World War I (and made two years before WW2), Grand Illusion sets the conflicts of nationality and class against the healing power of our common humanity. The French prisoners and their German guards try their best to be civilized in a world where civilization is not allowed. Jean Gabin stars as a French officer of common stock, but you’ll likely remember Erich von Stroheim as an aristocratic German facing the end of his way of life. The original negative was discovered and the film restored in the 1990s, but the new restoration (which I haven’t seen), is supposed to beat even that. Part of the series Grand Illusions: French Cinema Classics, 1928–1960.

A- French paraplegic double bill: The Intouchables &The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Castro, Thursday. The A- goes to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the moving story of a successful magazine editor in the prime of life (Mathieu Amalric) who suffers a stroke and wakes up with a full mind inside of an almost entirely useless body. Only by blinking can he communicate with the outside world, yet his determination drives him to write a book about his experiences. The film works best in the first half, where you see everything from his limited point of view, but I guess you The Intouchablescouldn’t carry the whole film that way. The Intouchables, a far more commercial work, follows the thorny but eventually healing friendship between a wealthy paraplegic and the African immigrant hired as his caregiver. Enjoyable, but predictable. Read my full review. Both films are based on true stories.

B Dr. Jack, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30.  This early Harold Lloyd feature lacks the strong sense of story and character found in his later silents, but it still delivers laughs. Its general attitude–preferring the common-sense small-town general practitioner to the fancy-pants medical specialist–was probably conservative in 1922. Today it feels like holistic medicine. Bruce Loeb accompanies on piano.

A+ Children of Paradise, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00. Shot while the Nazi occupation fell apart, Children of Paradise may be the most ecstatically French film ever made.children_of_paradise A three-hour epic set in the theater scene of early 19th-century Paris, it follows the life of a beautiful woman (Arletty) and four men who fall under her spell—each in his own unique way. The story is rich, romantic, and deeply in love with theatrical traditions. In this version of Paris, even the violent thugs see their lives as works of art. Written by Jacques Prévert and directed by Marcel Carné. Film purists will be happy to know that the PFA will screen a 35mm print, rather than the DCP screened last spring at the Castro; I do not know if this print is from the new restoration.  I discuss Children of Paradise in more detail here and here. Part of the series Grand Illusions: French Cinema Classics, 1928–1960. Last minute update: The print was struck in 2006, before the recent restoration.

A+ Raiders of the Lost Ark, UA Berkeley, Thursday. Steven Spielberg directed it, and the bad guys are Nazis, but it’s as far from Schindler’s List as a great movie can get. But then, it’s great in an entirely different way. There’s absolutely nothing to take seriously in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and no message to help uplift you. The story is fundamentally preposterous, and the hero, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is no more an archeologist than I am a butterfly. But the energy is so high, the action scenes so brilliantly choreographed and edited, and the whole story told with such enthusiasm and wit, that the rest of it just doesn’t matter. If you object to mindless, escapist action flicks on principle, you won’t see it anyway. If you don’t, you probably already love it.

B- Sing Along West Side Story, Castro, Sunday, 2:00. I’m commenting on the movie, not the sing-a-long experience. West Side Story swings erratically from glorious brilliance to astonishing ineptitude. The songs and dances–West Side Storyespecially the Jerome Robbins-choreographed dances–create a world of violent intensity and eroticism that both carry the story and shine in their own right. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better choreographed widescreen musical. It also contains magnificent supporting performances by Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris, and especially Rita Moreno. But the dialog is often stilted and stage-bound, and juvenile lead Richard Beymer is so bad he sinks every scene he’s in. Another part of the Castro’s Natalie Wood weekend.

C+ Buck Privates, Stanford, Friday. If you’re not already a fan of Abbott & Costello, their first movie won’t make you one. And if you are a fan, Buck Privates may cause you to question that allegiance. But it will make you a fan of the Andrews Sisters, who blow Bud and Lou out of the picture with their singing and dancing, and their fun personalities. On a double-bill with Hold That Ghost, another early Abbott & Costello vehicle.

Samuel Fuller

I’ve been throwing myself into the life and work of Samuel Fuller lately. It’s been a rewarding experience.

For those not familiar with the name, Fuller wrote and directed a string of low-budget, impressive genre films from the late 40′s to the early 60′s. His pictures are bold, direct, and in-your-face, and utterly lacking in subtlety. Yet they’re also marked with a strong, open-minded humanism, a hatred of violence (even though his films are often quite violent), and sympathy for minorities, the poor, and others on society’s margins.

After 1964, he found it difficult to raise money for new projects. He only directed a handful of films in the 33 years before his 1997 death.

Cover art for A THIRD FACEMy own recent plunge into Fuller’s world started when I picked up a used copy of his autobiography, A Third Face, at Berkeley’s Pegasus Books. I’m generally suspicious about autobiographies–the authors are seldom objective–but I couldn’t resist this one. After all, Fuller was one hell of a writer. Starting out as a reporter at 17, he wrote several novels as well as all those screenplays (far more than he directed). The book has its share of obvious errors (Paulette Goddard was not in Monsieur Verdoux), and issues suspiciously skipped over. Although he goes into great detail about many wonderful mentors and friends (all of whom he treats generously), he avoids discussing any romantic relationships except for his late-in-life and very happy second marriage.

Accurate or not, A Third Face is a great read. Fuller’s blunt, direct prose paint a self-portrait of the artist as a humanist rebel. He fights with producers and studio heads to make the pictures he wants to make, telling the stories he wants to tell. He even stands up to J. Edgar Hoover.

And it’s not all about movies. He goes into detail about the newspaper business in the 20s and 30s, and his experiences in the infantry during World War II (recreated and fictionalized in his 1980 film The Big Red One). His account of the vividly recreates the sense of going months and years expecting instant death at any moment. You can see why his war movies (all of which could reasonably be described as anti-war movies) carry such a strong wallop.

As I started reading the book, I decided to catch up on some of his films. I had seen enough already to know and like his work, but this gave me an excuse to dive in to more of them. (Among the films I’d already seen were The Big Red One, I Shot Jessie James, The Naked Kiss, and The Crimson Kimono.)

As luck would have it, two of Fuller’s major works, neither of  which I’d seen before, played the Pacific Film Archive as I was reading the book. The first was his first war film, The Steel Helmet. Set during the then contemporary Korean War, it follows a gruff sergeant trapped behind enemy lines. The sole survivor of his platoon, he eventually finds and joins another group of soldiers, heading on an extremely dangerous mission. This instantly became my all-time favorite Fuller film.

But it lost that status a week later, when I returned to the PFA for Pickup on South Street. Not only did this tale of a pickpocket and Communist spies supplant Steel Helmet as my favorite Fuller, it also leaped into my top tier of great film noir. To see what I’m talking about, read Anti-Commie Friday Night at the Pacific Film Archive.

I also managed to see four other Fuller films, all new to me, at home during this period. None of them matched the quality of Steal Helmet or Pickup, but I liked White Dog quite a bit, as well as parts of the western Forty Guns. I didn’t care much for Shock Corridor or Park Row. Shock Corridor went overboard with its B picture in-your-face shocks. Park Row suffered from Fuller’s other artistic flaw: It preached too much.

As it happens, I saw two other Fuller features theatrically this year–House of Bamboo and Underworld USA. That was way back in January, at a Noir City double bill. For more on these, see Noir City Report: 2 by Sam Fuller.

That means I saw four Sam Fuller films theatrically in 2012. Considering that no one did a retrospective of his work this year, that’s pretty good. Or pretty lucky.

And someone should have done a retrospective of his work. Fuller was born in 1912. This year was his centenary. At least one theater in the Bay Area should have done a series.

I’d like to close this post with the paragraphs that close Fuller’s autobiography:

So here’s my last word, dear reader.

Love,

That’s right. Love.

I don’t give a damn if it sounds like some corny ending to a B movie. Everybody’s got troubles, setbacks, frustrations, tragedies. Love gets us through them. Love inspires generosity, patience, and compassion. Love keeps us healthy and whole. If I’ve learned anything at all from writing all those stories, from fighting a world war, from making all those films, from being way up and being way down, I’ve learned that everything–everything!–can be expressed in just four god-blessed words: Love is the answer.

Okay, now all you new voices, let yourselves be heard!

What’s Screening: November 2 – 8

Doc Fest opens Thursday. And the Italian Film Festival continues on Saturday nights.

A- The Other Son, Opera Plaza, Shattuck, Aquarius, Rafael, opens Friday. Two families–one Israeli, the other Palestinian–discover that their 18-year-old sons were switched at birth. This could have been played for laughs (in fact it has been, in The Infidel), but director/co-writer Lorraine Levy wisely chose drama as she observes how the shock effects the two families. The Palestinian-born Israeli son, Joseph (Jules Sitruk) can’t join the military, and is told by his rabbi that he isn’t Jewish. The Israeli-born Palestinian son, Yacine (Mehdi Dehbi), loses the respect of his political activist older brother Bilal (Mahmud Shalaby of Free Men). Both are terrified of the consequences of their friends and neighbors finding out. Mostly through the work of the two mothers, the families slowly grow together, despite the cultural, political, and very physical walls that separate them. Read my full review.

B The Phantom of the Opera (1925 version), Stanford, Friday, 7:30. I haven’t seen the musical, but the original, silent Phantom is a tough one to beat (despite some pedestrian passages). Lon Chaney makes the perfect phantom–tragic, frightening, and yet strangely romantic. The demasking scene will stick in your memory for life. The newly-restored print (which I assume the Stanford is showing) recreates the original tints, 2-color Technicolor, and painted stencil colors. With Dennis James accompanying on the organ.

The 2012 Great Nickelodeon Show, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Sunday, 2:00. Early 20th Century nickelodeons showed more than just movies. In this recreation of a lost entertainment, the Museum will present vaudeville acts, illustrated songs, hand-colored slides, lectures, and early, one-reel flickers–including works by D.W. Griffith and George Melies.

A Double Bill: Terminator 2: Judgment Day & Inception, Castro, Friday. Actually, it’s a triple bill, but I haven’t seen Halloween III: Season of the Witch, so I won’t tell you about it. James Cameron’s Terminator 2 earns this evening’s A grade. This time around, a replica of the first movie’s killer robot (Arnold Schwarzenegger) returns from the future to help the good guys, stop a worse killer robot, and prevent a nuclear war. Linda Hamilton returns as the original’s intended victim, now a hard-as-nails and possibly insane heroine. The action scenes and special effects are outstanding, with a small-scale story, effective story of people surviving in extreme conditions. But I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea that a robot can make a better father than a flesh-and-blood man. Made by Christopher Nolan between the two Dark Knight films, Inception is little more than an enjoyable science-fantasy caper about brilliant crooks altering a man’s dreams for the betterment of everyone. Entertaining, but unexceptional.

C+ Buck Privates, Stanford, Wednesday through next Friday. If you’re not already a fan of Abbott & Costello, their first movie won’t make you one. And if you are a fan, Buck Privates may cause you to question that allegiance. But it will make you a fan of the Andrews Sisters, who blow Bud and Lou out of the picture with their singing and dancing, and their fun personalities. On a double-bill with Hold That Ghost, another early Abbott & Costello vehicle.

B+ The Wizard of Oz, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. 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.

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