Music, Fame, and American Insanity: My Blu-ray review of Robert Altman’s Nashville

For an all-too-brief time in the 1970s, the Hollywood studios financed and released serious art. They greenlit films without likeable heroes, clearly-defined villains, or conventional, three-act plots.

They even financed Robert Altman, who did his best work during that time. And Nashville was unquestionably one of his best. It’s tragic, funny, thoughtful, and filled with interesting and entertaining characters. It’s a realistic slice of life, an over-the-top melodrama, and an absurdist comedy. As is appropriate considering the titular city, the film is filled with great music. And amazingly, it all works.

In lieu of a conventional plot, Nashville follows a lot of different people, all with some overlapping connection to each other, as they go about their business in country music’s home town. In the course of the film’s long running time (160 minutes), Altman and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury introduce us to famous singers, obscure singers, one horrible singer, businessmen, and a politician whom we never actually see, but whose voice we hear constantly over loudspeakers.

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And Altman–a director that every actor wanted to work with–put together one of the most impressive casts in movie history. And almost everyone got to play a fully-developed character and show their acting chops.

And their singing chops. Laugh-in veteran Henry Gibson and 70′s icon Karen Black play big music stars. Not only do they sing in the film–and sing very well–they wrote their own songs.

I can’t discuss everyone who stands out in Nashville, but here are some of my favorite characters:

Lily Tomlin plays a devoted wife and mother, a religious Christian, and the only white person in a Gospel choir. But she has something to hide, and that something–or perhaps I should say someone–comes back to town.

Like Gibson and Black, Ronee Blakley plays a big country western star. But she’s been away for a while; and she is very much not well. Her public loves her, but that love may slide as she mentally deteriorates.

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Keith Carradine plays a singer/songwriter who enjoys being irresistible to women (and not much else). In one scene in a bar, Carradine sings the song "I’m Easy" (which he wrote), and four different women think he’s singing about them.

Geraldine Chaplin plays an astonishingly inept BBC reporter (if she really is a BBC reporter), with a knack for saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. Chaplin proves herself an excellent comedian, which is hardly surprising considering her father.

Also worth noting is Ned Beatty’s businessman, Shelley Duvall’s groupie, Keenan Wynn as a man with a sick wife, and both Barbara Harris and Gwen Welles as hopeful singers. Two actors who would become famous in the following decade, Scott Glenn and Jeff Goldblum, turn up in many scenes with little explanation..

Tewkesbury’s script finds many ways to bring all of the characters together. There’s a triumphant return at the Nashville Airport, the aftermath of a car accident, and several concerts. Many of the characters know each other and their lives overlap in various ways, but they all have their own separate stories.

Altman was not the first filmmaker to use this type of multithreaded narrative. To my knowledge, Agnès Varda did it first in La Pointe Courte (like Nashville, named after the place the story is set). Kurosawa did it in Dodes’ka-den. And even George Lucas did it in American Graffiti. But Altman did it so often that it became one of his trademarks. And his first time, in Nashville, he did it best.

First Impression

imageThe dead-tree parts of the package–the cardboard slip cover, the outside of the disc holder, and the small booklet–are treated to look like old, yellowed pulp paper. The booklet contains credits for the film and the transfer, and an article by Molly Haskell.

Following Criterion’s current policy, the package offers the same content on DVD and Blu-ray. Because of all the extras, this requires three discs–two DVDs and one Blu-ray. Only a Blu-ray can hold both the movie and the extras–and have bookmarking features that DVD doesn’t support.

I do wish, however, that the package contained one other disc: the soundtrack album CD. This movie has some great songs.

How It Looks

Great. The Nashville Blu-ray has the look of the original movie–a 1970′s Hollywood film shot in anamorphic Panavision and Eastmancolor. The film doesn’t look razor sharp, but it was never intended to look that way. This was always–and I assume intentionally–a soft-focus movie. The colors are spot-on. The film grain is there if you look for it, but it’s not distracting.

How It Sounds

When I looked at the box, I was disappointed to read that it sports only a 5.1 surround soundtrack. Nashville was originally released in four-track magnetic stereo, and I was hoping that Criterion would recreate that original mix in 4.0 surround–as they did for High and Low.

But after watching the film and listening to the lossless MTS HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, I can’t complain. It sounded great, and had that "Wow! This is in stereo!" effect that movies had before Dolby made the whole thing ubiquitous. I suspect it was very close to the original mix, with maybe a little bit of barely-noticeable split surrounds and subwoofer lows.

And the Extras

  • Commentary track by Robert Altman: As I write this, I’ve only gone through about half of this. Altman has some interesting things to say, mostly about his seat-of-the-pants working methods, but he doesn’t seem to have enough to say, overall. He pauses a lot, often for long stretches.
  • The Making of Nashville: This new, high-def documentary by Criterion runs for 71 minutes. Cast members and other collaborators talk about Altman and the movie. Easily the best extra on the disc.
  • Robert Altman Interviews: Three different TV interviews, from 1975, 2000, and 2002. About 40 minutes total. Although there’s some repetition, all three are worth watching.
  • Behind the Scenes: 12 minutes. Footage shot during production, specifically of the traffic jam sequences and the big closing concert. Bad video, no sound. The little bit I saw wasn’t interesting.
  • Keith Carradine Demo: 12 minutes His three songs, recorded in Altman’s LA office. 12 minutes. Audio with photos to give us something to look at. Really rough.
  • Trailer: 2 minutes

Nashville is one of the great American films of the 1970s. Criterion has done it justice. The disc goes on sale next Tuesday, December 3.

Prix de Beaute: Silent Film Festival Opening Night

This year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival opened at the Castro Thursday night with Louise Brooks' last starring role, Prix de Beaute (The Price of Beauty). I wouldn't put this French feature quite in the same category as Pandora's Box, but I liked it very much.

Brooks plays a working girl who enters and wins a beauty contest, becoming first Miss France and then Miss Europe. Her fiancé doesn't approve. In fact, he believes that beauty contests should be outlawed. She leaves her celebrity behind to marry him–a formula for a very sad marriage.

Historians argue over whether Louise Brooks was a great actress or merely a great beauty. Prix de Beaute should settle the controversy. She was both. You have absolutely no trouble believing that she's the most beautiful woman in Europe, or that she's a deeply conflicted soul, in love with an overly jealous, overbearing man that she's growing to hate.

Stephen Horne provided his usual excellent accompaniment. I wasn't seated where I could watch him, so I can't say what instruments he played beyond the piano. I think I heard an accordion, something like a guitar, and maybe a flute.

Prix de Beaute was made as a sound film (someone else dubbed Brooks' lines), but the Festival screened the silent version made for theaters not yet wired for sound. At the very end, Horne stopped playing and the original soundtrack came up. I can't tell you why without spoiling the ending, but it was dramatically the right thing to do.

Although this was a new restoration played off a DCP, this French film was shown with Italian intertitles. The theater projected yellow subtitle translations.

All in all, a very good presentation of a very good film. I'm looking forward to three more days of silent movies.

SFIFF Silent Movie Night: Waxworks with Mike Patton, Scott Amendola, Matthias Bossi, and William Winant

Every year, the San Francisco Intl. Film Festival hosts a silent film event, where they match a movie–generally not one everyone has seen–with one or more musicians who enjoy a strong local following–but are not associated with silent film accompaniment.

This makes sense both culturally and financially. The event, always held at the Castro, attracts both silent film fans and fans of the musicians. The two groups mingle, and each is exposed to something new. And more people buy tickets, as well.

At least that’s the theory. Sometimes it works beautifully. Other times it doesn’t work at all.

Tuesday night, it worked beautifully. Let’s start with the movie:

With its exaggerated visuals and strong horror elements, Waxworks is German expressionism through and through. Directed by Paul Leni in 1924, it’s the only film I’ve seen with both major stars from the period: Emil Jannings and Conrad Veidt. Unfortunately, they have no scenes together. (Leni, Jannings, and Veidt all moved to Hollywood before the decade ended. Jannings and Veidt returned to Germany when sound came in. Veidt left for good after Hitler came to power. Jannings, to his immortal shame, did not.)

This anthology feature uses a simple framework to tell three different dark and imagedemented stories. A young writer takes a job in a wax museum, coming up with stories for the exhibits. Most of the film is made up of two such stories. The first stars Jannings as a sultan out to take a baker’s wife. The second stars Veidt (easily one of the best heavies cinema ever had) as the most evil Ivan the Terrible you can imagine. The third story, about Jack the Ripper (Werner Krauss) is nothing more than a chase.

Like all anthology movies, it’s uneven. But I enjoyed it.

The music helped considerably. I know nothing about the musicians that took the stage–Mike Patton, Scott Amendola, Matthias Bossi, and William Winant–I can’t even tell you if they play together regularly.  Their music–harsh, percussion-heavy, and usually without melody–would probably drive me crazy under any other circumstance. But it suited the film perfectly, adding to the creepy feel. They found plenty of ways to produce the sounds they wanted, including scat singing and rubbing a balloon. At home point, when Veidt rhythmically claps as wedding guests dance (only Veidt could make that threatening), one of the musicians beat two wooden sticks together for each clap.

The Festival got a hold a beautiful, tinted, 35mm print from Cineteca di Bologna. Some scenes were both tinted and toned–creating a two-color effect that until last night I had never seen on the big screen. There were a few scratches and a couple of moments of nitrate decomposition, but it was still a joy to watch. Although it was a German film and the print came from an Italian archive, the intertitles were in French. The Castro projected English translations as supertitles.

All told, a wonderful evening.

Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey

B+ Music Documentary

  • Directed by Ramona S. Diaz

Note: I wrote this review after seeing this documentary at last year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, with the intention of posting it just before the theatrical release. Then I filed it away and forgot about it. When the movie opened last month at the New Parkway, I remembered the movie well enough to mention it in my weekly newsletter, but I forgot to post my review. So here is the review its complete form.

I’ve never been a fan of Journey, but this music documentary made me a fan of the band’s new lead singer, Arnel Pineda. He’s charismatic, energetic, down-to-earth, and funny. He also has a great set of pipes. (I use the word new loosely. He’s going on five years with the band.)

Filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz tells Pineda’s story, the band’s story, but mostly, the story of how he became a part of Journey. It’s about as inspiring a tale as you’re likely to dont_stop_believinfind in the real world.. Band members, desperate for a new singer, found the poverty-stricken, Manila-based Pineda on YouTube, flew him out to California, worked with him for a few weeks, then took him on what became the most successful tour of Journey’s long history. At least in Diaz’s interpretation, Pineda’s wide vocal range, athletic on-stage antics, nice-guy charisma, and youthful enthusiasm brought about the band’s resurging popularity.

It also helped that he’s Filipino. The new ethnic and racial mix made the band more interesting, and made Journey even more popular in the Philippines and amongst ethnic Filipinos in the United States and elsewhere. Diaz, herself a Filipino American, introduces us to several unusually worshipful fans of Filipino heritage.

Pineda’s pre-band life in the Manila was anything but easy. His family was extremely poor, and for a period homeless. Eventually, his singing led to work in a cover band, which provided barely enough money to bring his family together and rent a small home. Still in his teens, he became his family’s main breadwinner.

Looking at him perform, or even talk to the camera in close-up, I would put Pineda in his late twenties or early thirties. But as he describes his past life to Diaz’s camera, it becomes clear that he’s been around considerably longer than that. According to Wikipedia, he was 39 when Journey called. Perhaps that’s why he doesn’t fall into the usual traps associated with sudden rock and roll fame–he was already mature enough to avoid them.

Most of Don’t Stop Believin’  follows Journey on tour. We’ve this in other rock docs, but Diaz shows us more of the work that goes into music. We see Pineda doing voice exercises, and taking strict care of his throat so that he doesn’t blow it out. The closest this film ever gets to conflict or suspense involves a head cold.

That lack of conflict makes the movie drag at times, but Pineda has such a magnetic personality, and the story is so upbeat, that Don’t Stop Believin’ s infectiousness will catch you, anyway. It’s the ultimate feel-good movie.

Hava Nagila & Opening Night of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

Opening night of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival got off to a slow start, but when the movie finally started–nearly 45 minutes late–it was worth the wait.

No, there weren’t crowd or (as far as I know) technical problems. The show started on time. It was just that the first part of the show was irritating and boring.

The Pre-Show

Actually, it started pretty well, with a montage of SFJFF trailers from past years, in chronological order. The old trailers were a lot of fun, but last year’s and this year’s pale by comparison, so the montage ended on a low note.

Then the talks began. Program Director Jay Rosenblatt came onstage and gave a long and dull speech. Then Executive Director Lexi Leban came up and gave a worse one. Reading from sheets of paper, pausing frequently mid-sentence to find her place, she bored everyone to tears. She knew it, too, but she just kept plodding along.

Finally, when it was past 7:35, she introduced the film’s director, Roberta Grossman, who immediately won the audience with a joke about long speeches. She spoke briefly and with wit. Then the movie (and the fun) began.

The Movie

A Hava Nagila, a documentary about the famous tune, doesn’t take itself to seriously. Even the titles that introduce interview subjects make casual jokes. Where you expect to read, under the person’s name, something like "Professor of Musicology hava_nagilaat Such and Such University," you instead get "He has a PhD." This is a fun and joyful movie about a fun and joyful song. And yet, the film informs as well as any serious doc. The tune was born in Chasidic Eastern Europe as a nigun (a wordless song used in prayer), and the happy lyrics written by early Zionists–although which early Zionists 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.

Last night’s screening was the film’s world premiere.

You have three more chances to see Hava Nagila before the festival closes:

Q&A with the Filmmakers

After the movie, director Roberta Grossman and her team stepped onto the Castro’s stage for Q&A. Some highlights:

  • Grossman: The director doesn’t make the film. The director is just the greediest  person on it.
  • Grossman, again, on choosing the subject: Our daughter said "Please make a happy film, next time."
  • Screenwriter Sophie Sartain on writing for documentaries: it came together very slowly. You rewrite it many, many times. You write what you hope the people to be interviewed will say. Then they say something better. The final draft is in the editing room.
  • They haven’t asked permission to screen the documentary’s many movie and TV clips. They believe that fair use will protect them.
  • Did they get sick of listening to that song? "Yes, we got sick of the song, and we tried to cut it so that you wouldn’t get sick of the song."
  • They hope to get limited theatrical releases in New York and LA. The rest of us will have to wait for the DVD. You can track the movie’s status at. havanagilamovie.com.

My Interview with Director Grossman

Late this morning, I was able to interview director Roberta Grossman. What follows is a rough transcript, edited for readability:

Where did those comic titles ("He has a PHD," "Pretty good for 94") come from?

It was one of those wacky ideas that pops into your head. I don’t remember who thought of it. We were trying to play with the conventions of the documentary.

The song is both a fun party song and a deep,Chasidic nigun. We wanted the film to reflect that.

The movie ends with the song Celebrate. Why not end with the song the movie is about?

We wanted to make a loving nod to all that bad Jewish dancing and the spirit of celebration., we thought it would be real fun.

Celebrate is now part of the Jewish-American experience.

Following up on the writing question from last night’s Q&A: Why do you start writing a documentary before interviewing people?

The writing starts on day one. You’re telling a story. You have to have some sense of a beginning, middle, and end. I always write a script before I begin shooting.

It’s also part of the process of writing proposals for foundations. They need to know that you can tell them a story.

The image quality of most of the clips looked pretty bad (Exodus was the exception). Where did the clips come from?

It’s complicated. Two of the movie clips will be better the next time.

Because we’re using fair use, we’re not asking the studios for sources. We’re at the mercy of the quality of the clips that are available. They came from many sources, including YouTube, old VHS copies, and DVDs.

This is not a Film & Always for Pleasure at the PFA

I attended two separate, and very different events at the Pacific Film Archive last night.

This Is Not a Film
You really want something this important, this courageous, and this amazing in its very existence to also be exceptionally great. Unfortunately, This is Not a Film doesn’t live up artistically to the filmmakers’ courage.

Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, awaiting the start of his six-year prison sentence and a 20-year ban on filmmaking, shot what is basically a one-day video diary in his Tehran thisisnotafilmapartment, with the help of another important cinematic rebel, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. Panahi describes the movie he wants to but can’t make, examines scenes from his previous works, and discusses the art of directing actors (but not the films’ political content). He listens to street noise that goes from construction to fireworks to riots. While Panahi and Mirtahmasb made a great big "fuck you" to the Iranian government, their picture’s most memorable moments involve an annoying little dog and an adorable, cat-like iguana. In what’s likely to be his last film, Panahi has made rebellion seem banal.

Part of the PFA series A Theater Near You.

Always for Pleasure
There’s nothing banal about Always for Pleasure, or anything else made by Les Blank. The Berkeley-based Blank makes ethnographic documentaries like none other, filled with joyful enthusiasm and love for the music, culture, and love of his subjects. He also made two documentaries about Werner Herzog, including Burden of Dreams, the only making-of documentary that turned out better than the film whose making it recorded.

Last night’s presentation launched a two-month series at the PFA, appropriately titled Always for Pleasure: The Films of Les Blank. For me, this is a chance to reacquaint myself with a cinematic friend I haven’t been in touch with for decades.

The screening started with two shorts–a 1960 student film called "Running Around Like a Chicken With Its Head Cut Off" (not a documentary) and 1973′s "Dry Wood." The feature, Always for Pleasure, was almost a short itself, running just 58 minutes.

But what a wonderful 58 minutes they are! Always for Pleasure celebrates the street alwaysforpleasureparades of New Orleans, not only during Mardi Gras, but after funerals, on St. Patrick’s Day, and for other occasions. This 1978 documentary records people dressing up in wild costumes and dancing in the streets. There’s no narration aside from a few title cards, but plenty is explained by the interviewed participants. The strongest explanations come from the visuals and the music: This is human nature at its best.

All three films were presented, as they were shot, in 16mm. I honestly don’t remember the last time I saw a 16mm print of anything. Always for Pleasure was screened in a pristine, brand-new archival print. It was a thing of beauty.

One warning: Blank loves to show down-to-earth people preparing their food in detail. That includes the slaughtering and butchering of animals, where those details can get gruesome. Oddly, these images bothered me less last night than they did 20 years ago. (For what it’s worth, I’ve been a vegetarian since 1970.)

After the films, Blank and his sound recordist/film editor Maureen Gosling stepped up front for some Q&A. Blank started the session by tossing mardi gras swag into the audience. I got necklace, which is perfect since my family just acquired a new kitten.

Some comments:

  • Blank "originally wanted to be a fiction filmmaker like Ingmar Bergman," but he soon discovered that photographing real people "was a whole lot more fun."
  • On the lack of narration: "I attempt to not have an intermediary between the pictures and the audience.
  • "I don’t go around talking to people. People scare me."

French Cancan

I finished French Cancan last night. I say “finished” because I started it Tuesday night, streaming on Hulu Plus. About 25 minutes before the ending, when the big opening night stage show begins, either Hulu or my Internet connectionI started giving me trouble. It would freeze, start, freeze, start, and so on. Forty minutes later and 15 more minutes into the movie, I gave up.

This evening I tried again, starting where I left off, and rewinding to just before the point where the problem started. Everything went fine.

So I saw the movie in two parts. Not ideal, but I still got the gist of it.

If you primarily know Jean Renoir from Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game, French Cancan can throw you for a loop. This is more like something coming out of MGM’s Arthur Freed unit–especially The Band Wagon. It’s a backstage musical shot in three-strip Technicolor, funny, upbeat, and utterly entertaining. And, since it’s French, it’s far sexier than anything Hollywood would have made in 1954.

Renoir spins an origin myth, this one about the birth of the famous Moulin Rouge nightclub. It has no more bearing the true story than Adam and Eve have with evolution. But then, one should never look to a myth for historical accuracy.

Renoir fixture Jean Gabin–looking grayer and pudgier than in Grand Illusion, stars asfrench_cancan a theatrical producer of style, taste, ambition, and little money. He struggles to find backers while juggling mistresses. The main mistress is young, red-haired, and initially innocent (Françoise Arnoul). She must choose between the exciting world of dance and the young baker who loves her ardently and jealously.

Now here’s a difference between American and French musicals. She must choose between an honest young man who will always be loyal to her, and a philanderer and charlatan. Renoir has us rooting for the philanderer. The baker’s insistence on fidelity makes him an unlikeable jerk.

Also wonderful: The thin and extremely flexible Philippe Clay steals every scene he’s in as a performer who moves like no one else, sings comic songs, and twists his body like a pretzel.

This is Jean Renoir having fun.

SFIFF Closing Night: Don’t Stop Believin’

This year’s San Francisco International Film Festival ended with a blast of rock and roll.

B+ Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey
I’ve never been a fan of Journey, but this music documentary made me a fan of the band’s new lead singer, Arnel Pineda. He’s charismatic, energetic, down-to-earth, and funny. He also has a great set of pipes. Filmmaker dont_stop_believinRamona S. Diaz tells his story, the band’s story, but mostly, the story of how he became a part of Journey. Band members, desperate for a new singer, found the poverty-stricken, Manilla-based Pineda on Youtube, flew him out to California, worked with him for a few weeks, then took him on the most successful tour of Journey’s long history. This is a true-life fairy tale with no significant conflict–the worst thing that happens to Arnel is a head cold. That lack of conflict makes the movie drag at times, but Pineda has such a magnetic personality, and what happens to him is so upbeat, that it becomes the ultimate feel-good movie.

After the movie, I road in a bus (supplied by the Festival) to the Closing Night Party at Sloane Squared. It took a long time to get in, thanks to two big bouncers were letting people in only a few at a time. Once inside, it was too crowded and too noisy. I didn’t stay long.

Despite the disappointing party, the movie itself was a great way to end the Festival. I’ll post an overview of the Festival soon.

Sing Your Song

Harry Belafonte is a great performer and a great activist. This reverential documentary emphasizes the activism.

B Musical & political documentary

Directed by Suzanne Rostock

My mother was a big Harry Belefonte fan. She loved his singing voice. She very much approved of his political activism. And I suspect she found him very sexy. There were reasons for those tight pants and v-necked shirts.

Director Susanne Rostock clearly likes Belefonte, as well. Her biographical documentary, Harry Belefonte Charming TV Audience in Sing Your Songco-produced by Gina Belafonte and a company called Belafonte Enterprises, makes no attempt to show his warts. The picture celebrates the actor/singer’s talent, and even more, his activism.

Luckily, it’s a life worth celebrating. Born in Harlem and raised partly in Jamaica (the Caribbean Jamaica, not the one in Queens), Harry Belefonte started acting as a young adult. Then he discovered singing, and found fame and fortune with a singing style all his own. But as a black man in post-World War II America, he soon grew disgusted with the segregation that kept him down despite his success–and kept less successful African Americans further down still. He became an outspoken critic of racism and segregation, and soon became an important figure in the civil rights movement, working closely with Dr. Martin Luther King. He’s still an activist today, working to reform gang members and against a legal system all too eager to jail young people of color.

Rostock tells all this in her film–or more precisely, she allows Belefonte to tell it; theActivist Harry Belefonte in Sing Your Song subject of this doc is also its narrator. Their picture encourages you to burn with anger at the world’s injustices, and admire those who worked and sacrificed to end those injustices.

But if you come into the theater because you love Belefonte’s music, you’ll be disappointed. You’ll hear bits and pieces of many a great song, but you won’t hear a single one from beginning to end. I understand this is primarily a political biography and not a concert movie, but let’s be honest here. American history is filled with heroes and heroines who devoted their lives to making this a better world, and many of them paid a far greater price for their ideals than did Belefonte. Yet Rostock chose to make this picture about Belefonte. Why? Because he’s a talented and famous singer. Giving us a few complete songs would have resulted in a longer film, but it would have also turned an interesting political polemic into a must-see movie.

I have one more complaint–this one technical. Much of the picture is taken up by old, pre-HD television clips, shot in the old 4×3 aspect ratio. Rather than pillarboxing theseA Distorted Harry Belefonte in Sing Your Song images (putting black bars on the side of the screen to maintain the original framing), Rostock chose to fill the entire screen with every shot. Sometimes, she crops the shots vertically–not an ideal choice but a workable one. But other times she stretches the image horizontally, distorting the picture and making everyone look fat—as you can see above.

Rostock and Belefonte have made a flawed documentary that’s still worth seeing. They could have made a much better one.

Sing Your Song opens Friday at the Roxie.

Vitaphone Shorts at the PFA

Last night I attended the screening of ten Vitaphone shorts at the Pacific Film Archive. It was part of their current UCLA Festival of Preservation series. Vitaphone was vitaphonelogoWarner Brother’s early talking film technology, synchronizing image on film with sound on phonograph discs. The system was used for features—the best known being The Jazz Singer—but every Vitaphone feature was preceded by a collection of shorts.

Warners continued to use the name Vitaphone for their short subjects long after movie sound was unique or recorded on phonographs. I’ve seen Technicolor two-reelers from the late 1930s with the Vitaphone moniker.

Seven of the ten shorts screened last night were Vitaphone shorts in the classic sense of the term: crudely filmed vaudeville acts. They couldn’t edit the sound (how do you cut and splice a disc?), so they would film and record a stage act straight through using two or three cameras (the technology limited them to about 11 minutes maximum). Then they would edit the picture, always keeping it in sync with the unalterable sound.

Of these seven, the best was easily “Frank Whitman ‘That Surprising Fiddler’.” He played the violin in all sorts of ways. He used a matchstick for a bow, then a glassvitaphonewhitman flask. And when he used a conventional bow, he didn’t always use it conventionally. He held it with his mouth or his knees, and moved the violin across it. Foreshadowing Jimi Hendrix, he played the violin behind his back (although he didn’t set it on fire). But I also liked “Born and Lawrence ‘The Country Gentlemen’,” “Harry Fox and His Six American Beauties,” and “The Wild Westerner with Val Harris, Ann Howe.”

But three of the shorts were of a very different nature. They were more cinematic–clearly written and designed for film. They cut back and forth between scenes in a way that required at least crude audio editing. With two of these shorts, that wasn’t really surprising. “Niagara Falls” and “What A Life” were made in 1930. By that time Warners was recording sound on film like everyone else, and could edit audio. These were titled “Vitaphone Varieties,” clearly signifying a different kind of beast.

But the other cinematic short, “Hollywood Bound,” is a mystery to me. It was released in 1928, and I didn’t know that Warners could cut audio that early. I’m not sure how that one was made.

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