The Best Years of Our Lives at the Castro

There’s no better movie for Veteran’s Day than William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. A huge commercial hit and the Best Picture Oscar winner for 1946, it’s now all but forgotten. That’s too bad, because Best Years is not only an excellent film, it also deals with an issue that’s unfortunately still with us–how to integrate war veterans back into civilian life.

So I was delighted when I saw that it was coming to the Castro on Veteran’s Day, and I made sure I’d see it. It screened on a double bill with First Blood–the semi-serious action movie about a Vietnam vet that launched the unexpected Rambo franchise.

Before the film started, the Castro entertained us with a slideshow of coming attractions and music appropriate to the immediate postwar period. Then came the organ concert, followed by The Best Years of Our Lives.

As I explained in my review of the book Five Came Back, Wyler was a returning veteran himself when he made Best Years–and a disabled one. He left Hollywood soon after Pearl Harbor to film the real war for the government. He lost most of his hearing in the war, and Best Years was his first film after coming home.

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The film intertwines the separate but sometimes connecting stories of three veterans who meet and become friends as they return to their home town (which actually appears to be a small city) after the war. They didn’t know each other in the service, and they never crossed paths in their previous civilian lives.

Al (Fredric March) was a rich, middle-aged man, a husband and father, and a respected banker when he walked away from all that to fight fight for his country (as did Wyler). In the army, he never got passed sergeant. Now he has to reacquaint himself with his wife (Myrna Loy) and grown children. But he’s developed a drinking problem, and he’s having trouble with the bank’s less-than-humane policies.

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Fred (Dana Andrews) comes from a desperately poor background. He was a soda jerk before the war. But in the Air Force, he became a bombardier, a captain, and a decorated hero. But back home, he’s a nobody.

He married Marie (Virginia Mayo) shortly before going overseas, without really knowing her. So along with finding a job, he has to deal with a harpy of a wife who deeply regrets that she didn’t marry a rich man. To make things more complicated, he’s falling in love with Al’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright).

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But the most touching story of all is that of Homer, a former high school athlete who lost both of his hands in the war. He’s played by non-actor Harold Russell, who’s own story inspired the character. You feel Homer’s pain because you know that it’s Harold’s own pain and loss you see on screen.

On the surface, Homer seems at ease with his disability. He likes to show off what he can do with his hooks, and he often jokes about them. But the jovial nature makes a thin mask for his fear and depression.

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Through these three men and the people around them, Wyler and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood show us both the problems of returning veterans and an uneasily rigid class system. The wealthy Al just walks into his bank and gets a promotion. Homer is clearly middle-class, although not much is made of that. Fred was born poor and will remain so. The culture insists on that.

The film is beautifully photographed by the great Gregg Toland. The songwriter, musician, and actor Hoagy Carmichael does a nice supporting role as a favorite uncle who owns a bar and plays piano (that’s Carmichael really playing). Despite its nearly three-hour running time, the movie never lags. I wouldn’t cut a frame.

I give Best Years an A.

My only complaint is with Hugo Friedhofer’s music score. There’s too much melodramatic music.

This was my third viewing of The Best Years of Our Lives, and my first in a theater. The crowd wasn’t big, but it was enthusiastic. A drunken speech that grew into well-deserved sarcasm earned applause. And it was nice to have people to laugh with in this serious film’s few jokes. The large screen allowed me to truly admire Toland’s photography.

The Castro screened the film off a DCP. Most of it looked excellent–like a mint 35mm print without the vibration. But a few scenes looked horribly contrasty and, yes, electronic. I assume these ones came from a bad source, and were over processed in an attempt to fix their shortcomings.

If it had been a Friday or Saturday night, I might have stayed for First Blood. But I needed a full night’s sleep.

Book vs. Movie: The Shining

I read Stephen King’s novel The Shining in the late 1970s, not too long after its publication. It scared and thrilled me like no other work of fiction. I still remember the frustration of not being able to physically turn pages faster.

This past Friday night I finally saw Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation at the Pacific Film Archive, where it was screened as part of the PFA’s current series, Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick. Before the screening, I reread the book and loved it just as much as I had some 35 years ago. I liked the movie, especially the second half, but unlike my book vs. movie experience with Jaws, the original book version of The Shining really is better. Much better.

Warning: This essay contains spoilers for both the book and the movie.

The Real Heartbreak Hotel

When you come right down to it, The Shining is a haunted house story. Economic imageproblems force a family to live in a residence filled with ghosts and other supernatural evils. By turning the house into a large resort hotel, King created a larger canvas for the familiar story. You’ve got hundreds of rooms, long hallways, a huge kitchen and ballroom, and dark stories of homicidal mayhem.

Not only is the Overlook filled with evil, undead beings. The hotel is, in and of itself, evil. What happens in the Overlook–especially when it involves death–stays in the Overlook, presumably for eternity. And the hotel orchestrates that evil. The ghosts are merely minions of the Overlook Hotel.

But the Overlooks’ evil, supernatural nature has little direct effect on the natural, physical world. The book contains only three small incidents when the hotel’s evil directly effects the physical world. It’s real power is psychological. It can tap into  people’s brains, find their weaknesses, terrify them, or turn them into violent killers.

And the hotel finds a perfect stooge in the story’s principle character, struggling fiction author Jack Torrance. As King paints him, Jack is a loving husband and father, but he’s also an alcoholic with serious anger issues. Over the course of the novel, the Overlook plays with these weaknesses, amplifying his anger and sense of persecution, slowing turning him into a psychotic killer bent on destroying his family, now trapped with him in the snowbound hotel.

What Kubrick Did Wrong

And this is where Kubrick blew it. The movie never shows Jack’s loving side. He comes off as terse, self-centered, and borderline crazy right from the start. The sense of a good man struggling with his inner demons entirely disappears.

Both the book and the film open with Jack’s interview for the job of winter caretaker for a hotel that’s open only in the summer. In the book, the manager interviewing Jack is a jerk, an "Officious little prick" in Jack’s thoughts. The manager, Ullman, rakes him over the coals and lets Jack know that if it was up to him, he’d find someone better qualified. We’ve all had dreadful and humiliating job interviews. Your sympathy goes to Jack from the book’s first sentence.

Kubrick’s version of Ullman (Barry Nelson) is friendly and outgoing. It’s Jack (Jack Nicholson) who seems remote. When he says that he would never do anything to hurt his wife and son, you can’t help but laugh. There’s already a dark twang to his voice. While King uses the interview scene to provide exposition and make us identify and sympathize with Jack, Kubrick just uses it for exposition.

By not showing us Jack’s good side, Kubrick gives him less space to fall into evil. That makes it a less effective story.

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I understand that it’s almost impossible to watch a film adaptation of a beloved novel. No matter how good the film is, it can’t possibly contain the detail or the interior monologues of a book. And if it tried to do that, it would become a mess. While watching the film, I tried very hard to push King’s version out of my mind.

Jack’s five-year-old son, Danny (Danny Lloyd) has powerful psychic abilities that play imagea very important role in the novel. He still has them in the film, but they seem less powerful, and less important to the story. That’s a legitimate adaptation choice on Kubrick’s part, but I had a hard time accepting it.

But Kubrick made other, very serious mistakes. Consider the music. As he did in 2001, Kubrick used mostly existing classical recordings, usually of little-known pieces. But here he picked scary-sounding passages, and played them too loud, as if to remind us that we’re supposed to be scarred. That worked very well in the scenes where the audience really was scarred. Otherwise, it got annoying.

What Kubrick Got Right

But Kubrick also added brilliant touches.

In the film, Jack spends a lot more time at the typewriter; you never really see him doing the repair work that’s supposed to be his job. As things begin to get really scary, his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) picks up and looks at the thick manuscript he’s been working on all this time. It says only "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," over and over again. Sometimes it’s formatted like a screenplay. Other times, it’s just plain text. Often it has typos.

Remember that the film came out in 1980, before personal computers and printers were common. Jack (and, in reality, someone in the prop department) had to type it over and over again. That’s a great way to discover that your husband, who is trapped with you and your son in a snowbound hotel, has gone completely bonkers.

Then there’s the matter of topiary objects. In the book, the Overlook has plants in the front yard cut to look like animals–including a dog, a rabbit, and two lions. They seem to come alive at some very scary moments. This works extremely well in a book; I doubt it would have had the same effect in a movie.

So instead, the film’s Overlook has a topiary maze. Before the snow comes and before things get really scary, Wendy and Danny have a fun afternoon in the maze. At the climax, set on a snowy night, it makes a great setting for the final chase.

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It wasn’t until I left the theater that I realized that the film’s maze, unlike the book’s animals, is in no way sinister. It provides fun and then safety. I had expected its walls to move like the novel’s plant animals.

Although the film starts weak, it gets better as it goes along. As the danger and fear ratchets up, the overbearing music began to work. The second half is as scary as the novel, and that’s about as scary as it can get and still be fun.

Kubrick provided one scare, I suspect, to make fans of the book jump out of their seats. Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), easily the most heroic character in either version, dies a sudden and horrifying death in the film. He survives in the book.

Unfortunately, Dick’s death brings in a very unfortunate Hollywood cliché: The black man who dies to save white people. I guess some people find that comforting. I don’t.

Kubrick’s ending, quite different from the book, works very well in its own terms. But it seems an odd choice. King’s ending, where the Overlook goes up in flames, would be far more cinematic. On the other hand, Kubrick’s ending must have been a lot cheaper to shoot.

Why I waited so long?

Why did it take me 34 years to see The Shining? I was intrigued the moment I read that Kubrick was making the film version. I had recently read the book, and at that time, 2001: A Space Odyssey was still my all-time favorite film.

However, A Clockwork Orange had disappointed me somewhat. And I hated Barry Lyndon with a passion. That and bad reviews kept me away from The Shining. I’m glad now that I’ve seen it.

The PFA screened The Shining of a DCP from Warner Brothers. It looked excellent, like a brand-new 35mm print, only steadier.

Opera in the multiplex

Wednesday night, I finally saw an opera in a movie theater. I liked the experience.

I’ve known about the Met Opera HD series for years. But I’ve never been a huge opera fan, so it took me awhile to get to one.

I picked a good one, Verdi’s Macbeth. While I’m not that big on opera, I’m a huge Shakespeare fan, and Macbeth is one of my favorites. And I’m certainly open to loose adaptations. After all, I love Throne of Blood.

Verdi stuck much closer to Shakespeare’s text than Kurosawa ever did. The libretto is in French Italian, but the setting is still Scotland and names haven’t been changed. If anything was left out, I didn’t notice it.

But Verdi added enough to stretch Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy to about three hours–not including the intermission. Every soliloquy in the play got turned into an aria, and I think there were some other arias thrown in, as well.

19th century operas apparently demanded far more spectacle than Elizabethan tragedies, and Verdi didn’t miss a chance to fill the stage with large choruses. Instead of three witches, we get what looked onscreen as 30. Banquo is murdered not be two assassins but what appeared to be a battalion. That make it awfully hard to believe how Banquo’s son got out alive.

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Not much of Shakespeare’s language survived. You can’t take English iambic pentameter, translate it into French Italian song lyrics, then back into English subtitles, and expect a copy of the original. But famous lines (“Out, damn’d spot”) survived.

But the music was beautiful–at times joyful, martial, frightening, and tragic. Macbeth is the story of a potentially good man who consciously chooses evil. His wife, on the other hand, is evil incarnate. And yet, in the end, she’s the one who feels remorse, even if she doesn’t understand it. It’s a complicated story, and Verdi’s music helped take us on this moral roller coaster.

imageHe was helped by the cast, of course. Anna Netrebko sung and acted an amazing Lady Macbeth–scheming, manipulative, sexy, and way over the top. That’s how it works in opera. As her manipulated husband, Zeljko Lucic carries the title role with both the strength and the self- doubt that the part requires. His was also an excellent performance, but one that gets blown out of the water by Netrebko.

The production placed the story in the 20th century, around the time of World War II judging from the clothes, weaponry, and especially the jeeps. This is very much like modern Shakespeare productions, which tend to be set in any time after Shakespeare’s own. However, as I watched the previews for coming operas, I realized that Met was following a similar, “let’s update” approach.

In the first scene, as the camera panned across the chorus of witches, I noticed a few little girls mixed amongst the grown women. The girls didn’t sing; they were there for visual effect. Most of them looked awkward and confused, as if they didn’t know what to do. But one was clearly enjoying playing an evil witch. All of them were, of course, adorable.

But as I watched the scene, I realized that in those girls I was seeing something unique to live theater on the big screen. If I had been in the Met watching the show live, the girls would have been too far away to study. In a real movie, their amateurish performances would have been fixed with retakes and editing. But this was an entirely different experience.

I think I’m going to catch more operas.

10/17: I corrected an error. The libretto was in Italian, not French.

Sunday at the Mill Valley Film Festival

I spent Sunday at Mill Valley Film Festival. Amazingly, I was actually in Mill Valley.

Here’s what I saw:

The 3D Sideshow

3D enthusiast and filmmaker Robert G. Bloomberg introduced this selection of shorts with a trailer to a 50’s 3D movie called The Maze. He followed this with his own Frogs & Friends–a selection of (mostly) still images of wildlife–often very tiny insects.

That one was wonderful, but the best movie in the show was unquestionably Jason Jameson and James Hall’s One Night in Hell. Stylistically Victorian, yet with a modern sense of humor, it followed Satan on his rounds, using the 3D for very funny effects.

I also liked Jeff Boller’s rock video, A Geek Like Me.

A Geek Like Me

Some of the shorts were pre-3D. They screened Georges Méliès’ The Infernal Cauldron, accidentally shot in 3D (I’ve already described how that happened). Also included: a colorized and 3D-converted version of the Safely Last climax; it was hilarious–almost as funny as the 2D, black-and-white original. And one of the two Disney shorts in the show started as an old, early, black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoon that exploded into widescreen, color, and 3D.

Speaking of big names, Fox provided a Simpson’s cartoon of Maggie in the world’s worst daycare.

In Order of Disappearance

Local Citizen of the Year Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgård), is a peaceful man. But when his son turns up dead from a drug overdose, and he wasn’t using drugs, our hero sets out to make the bad guys pay. I’m not really a fan of revenge thrillers, and this one is exceptionally violent, both in the body count and in the gruesome nature of the deaths. But a strong sense of absurd humor helps the violence go down easily. When was the last time you saw a movie where the horrifically evil organized crime boss is also a high-strung vegan? A sick, twisted, yet entertaining thriller from Norway.

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I’m giving this film a B+, and can recommend it to anyone who likes dark and gruesome humor. Unfortunately, you’ll likely never get a chance to see it, as it’s not expected to get an American release.

Wild

Before the show began, we  were treated to Pixar’s new short, Lava, about a lonely volcano who finds love. Yes, the story is silly, but fun enough for a short.

After the short, Director of Programming Zoë Elton, who introduced one of the stars of the film, Laura Dern. Dern actually has a relatively small role in the picture, but the event was in her honor.

Elton interviewed Dern for a few minutes about being a second-generation actor and the people she’s worked with.

Then they screened the film.

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Judging from this adaptation of her memoirs, Cheryl Strayed led a pretty wild life before she walked into the real wild and got herself together. This film adaptation of Strayed’s memoir follows her as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail and learns how to be a fully in-the-moment adult human being. Interspersed with the hike, the film shows us flashbacks that tell us what sort of person she was before the difficult and dangerous three-month voyage. We learn about her struggling but loving mother who died too soon, and the self-destructive streak that destroyed Cheryl’s marriage.

It’s a powerful film, and I’m giving it an A. It opens later this year.

MVFF: A Bridge to a Border

Saturday afternoon, I made it to the Rafael for a Mill Valley Film Festival screening of Rob Nilsson’s A Bridge to a Border. To be honest, I wouldn’t have picked that film if I had recognized the director’s name. Two years ago I caught his Maelstrom, and hated it.

I’m glad to say that A Bridge to a Border is nowhere near as bad as Maelstrom. This time around, the characters seem vaguely interesting, and are actually involved in trying to do something. It even gets exciting near the end. I’d give it a C+.

This time around, a quarrelsome group of left-wing terrorists plan to blow up the Bay Bridge. Why? I’m not sure. There’s some talk about how successful the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers had been, and how pathetically the Occupy Movement failed.

Because it’s a Rob Nilsson film, there’s a lot of semi-improvised dialog, much of which goes nowhere. Occasionally the dialog succeeds to letting us know something about the the characters, but not often. We get to know what turned some of them into violent radicals, but others are left as cyphers. Things pick up near the end, and the climax kind of works.

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After the movie, we were treated to a Q&A with Nilsson and members of his cast. Some highlights:

  • Nilsson said the film was made not so much with money but by  "people power."
  • The climactic scene on the Bridge was done with a green screen.
  • Someone asked about Nilsson’s unique approach to working with actors (who he prefers to call players). He runs a workshop where people work on relaxation and concentration. "We try to find the places inside ourselves"
  • "We do a lot of backstory improvisation."

Addition, 10/13: I just discovered that A Bridge to a Border) is available on Fandor. So if you want to see it yourself, you can stream it.

MVFF: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Lark

Wednesday night I finally got to a 2014 Mill Valley Film Festival event–a screening at the Lark of one of my favorite westerns, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

imageBelieve it or not, this was my first visit to the Lark. Yes, I’ve been covering it at Bayflicks for years, but this was the first time I actually stepped inside.

The Lark is a modest-sized neighborhood theater of the sort that dotted the small towns and suburbs before the invention of the multiplex. The art deco décor has been lovingly restored. The lobby is small, with two small areas off to the side where people can sit and talk.

The screen isn’t huge, but it’s big enough to create a real movie feel. The seats are comfortable, with good drink holders.

Before the movie, Festival Executive Director Mark Fishkin came onstage and introduced James Hetfield of Metallica, who hosted the screening. Metallica is this year’s Artists in Residence, and each member of the band got to select a favorite film to be screened.

Hetfield talked briefly about The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and how it had influenced him. He discussed the three main characters, the use of close-ups, and–not surprisingly–Ennio Morricone’s iconic score. The film started at about 7:15.

The Great, the Crazy, and the Iconic

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is an epic quest motivated purely by greed. Three violent and deadly criminals, all very skilled at their job, set out to recover $200,000 in stolen gold. None of them knows exactly where the loot is hidden, but individually each has a piece of the puzzle. They constantly change allegiances, sometimes collaborating with and then double-crossing each other.

Meanwhile, war rages around them. Director/co-writer Sergio Leone set this western in the American Civil War. Issues like succession and slavery never comes up, but the destruction is vast and senseless. As the rebel army retreats from a town, an innkeeper loudly hails the Confederacy, while privately telling his wife that the Yanks will be better because they pay in gold. Another town has been battered to ruins–perhaps an echo of Leone’s adolescence in World War II Italy. Twice a day, armies clash over a bridge that both sides want and no one can hold. Soldiers on both sides speak with sarcastic hate of their commanders.

And through it all, our three lead characters (I can’t quite call them all protagonists) cheat, threaten, bribe, and murder their way to their ultimate goal.

The Good: Clint Eastwood plays his iconic Man With No Name, although in this film his friends call him Blondie. He’s a thief and a con artist, a quick and deadly draw who feels no remorse after killing someone. When he tires of his partner, he leaves him in the middle of the desert without horse, food, or drink. In any other movie, he’d be the villain. But he doesn’t kill without reason, and he occasionally displays acts of generosity to minor characters. By this film’s standards, that makes him the good guy.

The Bad: Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes stands amongst the vilest villains in film history. His nickname is clearly ironic–his eyes look as evil as Satan. He tortures people for information, robs prisoners, and murders with the slightest of motives. His only code of honor: If he takes the money, he sees the job through. Early on, he kills two men because each of them paid him to kill the other one–and he shoots one of them in cold blood.

The Ugly: The Jewish-American actor Eli Wallach played Mexican banditos in at least three movies, but only here did he make the character funny, touching, lovable, and utterly horrible. His Tuco–devious, dumb, proud, and as wily as a rat–carries The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. When he’s out for vengeance, his cruelty surpasses Angel Eyes. But when he needs the victim of that cruelty, he becomes the dependable partner–just so long as you don’t turn your back. More than anything else, Wallach’s performance raises this movie from very good to great.

Leone and his collaborators tell the story of these men in a flashy and daring style. In addition to the close-ups and musical score I’ve already discussed, there’s the striking use of the widescreen frame, splashy editing–especially in the climatic three-way gun duel–and the dark humor that pervades the picture.

Versions and restorations

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is an Italian film with American stars, shot in Spain, and set in the American west. Like most Italian films of its day, it was shot without recording a dialog track. All of the dialog was dubbed in separate Italian and English versions (and other languages too, I assume).

Leone’s original cut ran 175 minutes–too long for the American distributor, United Artists. So Leone cut it back to 161.  The cuts were made before the English dubbing; the removed scenes could not easily to restored to the film.

That was fixed in 2003, when MGM/UA created the Extended English Language version. They restored and redubbed the cut scenes. Eastman and Wallach dubbed their parts, but another voice actor talked for the late Van Cleef. They also added a scene that Leone had cut from the Italian version, bringing the running time to 179 minutes. They also remixed the soundtrack, taking it from mono to Dolby Digital 5.1.

So the film has now grown by 18 minutes from the version I first fell in love with. I have mixed feelings about the changes, and I still cling to my 161-minute DVD. Some of the recovered scenes add atmosphere and character development. Others fill in plot gaps that never really needed to be filled. I love both versions, but I love the shorter one more.

This year, MGM/UA gave this picture a 4K digital restoration. They stuck to the 179 extended version, and–I’m glad to say–they restored the mono soundtrack. The festival screened the film from a 4K DCP, with the mono sound.

Aside from a rather ridiculous MGM 90th Anniversary trailer (see MGM 90th Anniversary…without MGM), it was a great presentation, showing the deep colors and heavy grain expected in a Techniscope production of the 1960s. Unless there’s an archival dye-transfer print from the original release somewhere, this is as good as the picture can get.

Overall, a very good evening.

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.

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