Book vs. Film: Red River

When someone turns a mediocre book into a great film, people forget that it ever was a book. Such is the case with Borden Chase’s decent but unexceptional novel, Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, and the cinematic masterpiece that Howard Hawks made out of it, Red River.

imageAs I mentioned in my Red River Blu-ray review, Criterion includes a paperback copy of Chase’s novel in the package. At the time I wrote that review, I had not yet read the book. I have now.

But be warned: This article contains spoilers. You should see the film before you read any further. And if you’re really a fanatic about spoilers
–even spoilers for long-forgotten books that aren’t that good to begin with–maybe you should read the novel first, too.

No one ever agreed on what to call this novel. When it first appeared serially in the Saturday Evening Post, it was simply The Chisholm Trail. By the time it came out in hardcover, the title had grown to Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail. The film’s opening credits refer to it cryptically as "the Saturday Evening Post story." The movie’s commercial success gave the paperback edition the  title Red River. Criterion, in republishing the book as a DVD/Blu-ray extra, returned to Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, probably because it sounds so appropriately cheesy.

Now that I’ve read it, I’m not surprised that Howard Hawks was attracted to this story. It’s about men who work a dangerous job for a living, have the professional skills needed for that job, and define their masculinity by their profession. It has one important female character, who is smart and strong and knows how to take care of herself in a man’s world. That pretty much describes half of Hawk’s work.

Hawks’ film closely follows Chase’s story, but not too closely (Chase wrote the first draft of the screenplay). Many of the characters changed from page to screen. Both Cherry Valance and Tess Millay are far less likeable and sympathetic in the book. The book’s Cherry–self-centered and cold-blooded–is probably a more realistic view of a hired gun than the one John Ireland played. But I missed the evolving, arguably homo-erotic friendship between Cherry and Matt that helps make the film so interesting.

The book’s Tess is quite willing (and skilled) at getting one man to kill another for her benefit. Cherry kills a man for her. Then, when Dunston and Cherry make their deadly confrontation, she takes steps to make sure that Dunston is the survivor.

In the novel, Groot is merely the cook; we only meet him on the cattle drive. We never get to know him. In the film, he’s Dunson’s sidekick from the start and becomes a major character. That makes his decision to join the mutineers all the more dramatic and meaningful.

Also in the book, Dunson–that paragon of western strength and reckless violence who could only have been played by John Wayne–is English. That’s right; he comes from the land of teatime and the stiff upper lip, although he never behaves like such a person. When I read his dialog on the page, I didn’t hear a British accent in my head; I heard John Wayne.

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Both the book and the film try for an epic feel, but only the film succeeds. Chase attempts a mythic style through purple prose ("A score of years–mad, cruel, bitter years of conflict in which a nation trembled on the rim of ruin") and by inflating the story’s stakes. Matt, and Chase, keep reminding us that this cattle drive isn’t about saving Dunson’s ranch; it’s about saving Texas.

Hawks, on the other hand, created a true epic feel through Russell Harlan’s Fordian black-and-white photography, and Dimitri Tiomkin’s magnificent score. Only Tiomkin could make "Git Along, Little Doggies" sound important and dramatic.

Borden Chase hated Hawks’ happy ending, which undercuts the epic feel of the story. We’ve been set up for a fight to the death between Dunson and Matt–the surrogate father and son heroes who must inevitably become enemies. But their fight turns into reconciliation, and everyone smiles at the end.

The book sort of ends as epic tragedy. Dunson–fatally wounded from his confrontation with Cherry–is too weak to fight. Matt and Tess take him south, so that he can die in his beloved Texas.

But for real epic tragedy, Matt would have had to kill Dunson. After all, the story is really Mutiny on the Bounty seen through the lens of Oedipus Rex.

There’s something else about Hawk’s ending that’s always bothered me: Cherry’s fate. His brief confrontation with Dunson leaves the older man with a flesh wound, but Cherry falls to the ground. Men come running to help him. All this happens in the background, far from the camera. A major character, one whom we’ve grown to like, who fell trying to save the film’s most likeable hero, ends up either seriously wounded or dead. We don’t know which. The film doesn’t seem to care about him any more.

And everyone smiles at the end.

Despite these flaws, Red River is still a great movie–one of the best westerns ever made, and a study in ways to be a man. And it’s based on an entertaining but unexceptional novel.

The American Dream turns into a nightmare, and a great American film needs to be seen

A young man comes to New York, dreaming of success and wealth. But reality refuses to live up to his dreams–perhaps because he dreams too much– in King Vidor’s 1928 masterpiece, The Crowd. Told with daring photography, real locations, surreal sets, and subtle pantomime, The Crowd brings you through dizzying joy and wrenching tragedy as it follows the story of an ordinary man who refuses to accept that he’s ordinary.

Even those who love silent film will often acknowledge that when it comes to character-driven, realistic, contemporary drama, talkies have a distinct advantage. But The Crowd makes one very special exception. Here we have reality–or something very close to it–without the aid of the human voice.

The Crowd is not a lost film, but it’s a difficult one to see. Warner Brothers, which owns this MGM title, has never released The Crowd on DVD or Blu-ray. If you want your own legal copy, you have to find an out-of-print, expensive laserdisc or VHS cassette. It’s currently streaming on Warner Archive Instant, but individual titles don’t stay up on that service for more than a few weeks. As far as I know, it’s not streaming anywhere else–at least not legally.

The Crowd follows the optimistic but ultimately disappointing life of John Sims, who comes to New York as a young man to make it big. The first time we see the adult John (James Murray in what I believe was his only starring role), he’s on a ferry to Manhattan, smiling and ready to conquer the world. He tells a fellow passenger (in an intertitle, of course) that he only wants an "opportunity." The look on the other man’s face is priceless.

A reverse shot shows us the Manhattan docks, which leads to a montage of New York City, including a couple of shots where the camera tilts up to reveal the high skyscrapers. Then the camera moves up one of those skyscrapers, and heads inside, where rows and rows of desks fill a vast room (yes, The Crowd influenced The Apartment). Finally, the camera finds John, now earning his living. But he’s just one toiler out of hundreds, eagerly waiting for the 5:00 bell that will let him leave the office.

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That image of the vast, dehumanizing room reoccurs much later in the film, in a surprising context. John has just become a father, and the vast maternity room stretches out with rows of beds. People are born to be lowly workers dreaming of an unattainable better life.

Director King Vidor (who also co-write the screenplay) condemns American society in The Crowd, but he also condemns John, a man whose imagination is greater than his real ambitions. He talks about his ship coming in, but he never seems to seriously guide it into a harbor. He works just hard enough to keep his job, refuses to socialize with his bosses, quits in a moment of anger, and rejects a job offer that feels like charity. And all this from a man with mouths to feed.

Murray gives an excellent performance here, but Eleanor Boardman gives a better one–one of silent cinema’s greatest acting jobs–as his long-suffering wife, Mary. We first meet her as a flirtatious but innocent young woman on a Coney Island date. On her wedding night (on a train to Niagara Falls), she is shy and scared. In a later breakfast scene, her frustration, exhaustion, and disappointment are palpable. She loves John, and you can see that even when she’s mad at him. And he gives her plenty of reasons to be mad at him.

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Boardman married Vidor two years before they made The Crowd. Three years later they divorced. I can’t help wondering if a real troubled marriage helped her understand her character.

The Crowd is a serious film, but it has moments of joy and laughter. The ending is ambiguous. It’s a happy ending, in that John and Mary are happy when we last see them. But the basic problems are still there. Vidor gives you no reason to believe that the happiness will last.

I first saw The Crowd at a Los Angeles museum screening in 1973. It was some 30 years before I could see it again, on Turner Classic Movies. A year or so later, I saw it at the PFA. Last night, almost a decade after that screening, I got to watch it on Warner Archive Instant. Outside of the current, temporary situation, it’s not an easy film to see.

But it’s one that should be seen. Warners should give it a thorough restoration (the streaming version shows serious nitrate degradation in some shots), and make it readily available to theaters on DCP and 35mm. And then they should make it available on DVD and Blu-ray, complete with commentary and extras . And if Warners won’t do it, they should license the film to Criterion, or the Film Foundation, or UCLA, or someone else who doesn’t have to worry about stockholders.

Six years after making The Crowd, Vidor made a sequel of sorts, Our Daily Bread. It’s an interesting picture, but far from a great one. If I was to put The Crowd on a double bill with anything, I would bill it with Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July. Yes, one’s a drama, and the other a comedy. Yet they have some interesting themes running through both.

But for now, just catch The Crowd while you can.

Note: Soon after posting this article, I received the following good news from a Warner spokesperson:

The film has not been released on DVD yet as they feel it needs a restoration, which it will at some point but for now, fans can watch the film on WAI.

Also, the article makes it sound as if the film is only on the short for a short period of time. It’s not. Films do come off and new ones will come up but it’s not as if they are only up for a few weeks before coming down. Also, there is a column on the site noting which films are coming off so fans have notification of this ahead of time at http://instant.warnerarchive.com/browse.html#CF_2461-3426.

Boyhood: As Real as Fiction Gets

A Long-form drama

  • Written and directed by Richard Linklater

I’m a sucker for long films that take place over the course of several years. But I’ve never seen one as real as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. This isn’t a story of an extraordinary person, or of a normal person going through an extraordinary experience. But it does something even more special. It follows the experiences of a relatively normal boy growing up, from elementary school until his arrival at college. With few exceptions, most of his experiences are pretty common.

The result is an exceptional motion picture. Running nearly three hours, without conventional setups and manufactured disasters, it never lags. This just may be the best new film of the year.

You probably already know Boyhood‘s gimmick–it was shot off and on over a period of 12 years. Thus, we get to watch young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) grow up for real. And we see his parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) move into middle age.

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But this time, the gimmick works–beautifully. In most films set over a long period of time, we’re aware of the moment when the child actor is replaced by an adult. Or we notice the changing makeup as the characters age. Not here. Aside from occasional hairstyle changes, people in one scene look pretty much as they did in the last. But not quite. You can see those subtle, barely noticeable changes that happen to everyone year by year. The 18-year-old Mason looks very different from the six-year-old, but since we see the whole transition, as we do in life.

This technique has another benefit. The film begins in 2002, with the attitudes, fads, and technologies of the time, and slowly works up to 2013. Yet the early scenes never feel like period pieces, because they weren’t shot as period pieces. The scenes set in 2002 were shot in 2002, by people who didn’t know about smartphones or Barak Obama.

Now then, on to the story:

Mason’s life isn’t all that easy. His parents are divorced, and neither of them have much money. He and his sister live with their mom, who became a mother way too soon and has a history of making poor romantic choices. Their father loves them, but needs to grow up himself.

For the most part, Boyhood avoids the sort of dramatic and disastrous situations that drive most narrative films. Several times, I thought that a horrible accident was eminent, or that Linklater was setting up a conflict for a subplot, but I was almost always wrong. For instance, a scene involving middle school bullies lacks the obvious follow-up.

A lifetime of movie going had taught me to expect these plot points. But when they didn’t materialize, I felt relieved, not disappointed.

Which isn’t to say that everything goes smoothly for Mason and his family. There are the usual problems of childhood and adolescence, but there are also some very scary scenes that go beyond normal childhood experiences. Like I said, their mom makes some poor romantic choices.

Fifty years from now, if civilization survives, people will still be watching Boyhood, both as a document of the early 21st century, and because it so perfectly reflects life as we all know it. It’s a remarkable work.

A Life Itself at the Movies

A- Documentary

  • Directed by Steve James

The first thing you have to understand about Life Itself, Steve James’ biographical documentary about Roger Ebert, is that James is hardly a dispassionate observer. He was not a close friend to Ebert, but he owed a lot to the famous film critic. It was Ebert, and his partner Gene Siskel, who championed James’ first feature, Hoop Dreams, and made him an important filmmaker.

The next thing you need to know is that Life Itself is no rehash of Ebert’s autobiography. The book, like all autobiographies, is told from one point of view–Ebert’s. The film shows Ebert’s life from many points of view. Friends, family, co-workers, filmmakers, and other critics–some of whom didn’t care much for Ebert–get their chance to discuss the brilliant writer, passionate cinephile, and overweight alcoholic who became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, and then the most influential film critic of all time. And one of the best.

Siskel and Ebert in the early days

Overall, the film gives us a far more positive view of Ebert than modesty would have allowed him to say about himself. But others can gush about Ebert’s fast yet concise writing style, his advocacy for rare and wonderful films that might never have had a chance without him, and his enthusiastic lust for life. And, of course, his courage in the face of cancer and the botched operations that robbed him of the ability to eat, drink, or talk.

James started working on the film just before Ebert went into the hospital once again, in what they didn’t know at the time was the beginning of the end. As it turned out, this was the beginning of the end for Ebert. The film cuts between two timelines–the physical deterioration of his last months and his entire life. Obviously, the two stories come together in the end.

Be prepared. This film spends a lot of time looking at a man without a jaw. Well, he sort of has a jaw–a u-shaped piece of flesh–sans bones and muscles–hanging below his gaping mouth. And when you look into that mouth, you see his neck or, depending on the camera angle, what’s behind him. It’s pretty disturbing at first, but his upbeat and joking personality helps you adjust.

We hear a lot of Ebert’s words in Life Itself. Sometimes, they’re from old recordings. Sometimes they’re his computer voice. Other times it’s an actor–one who sounds very much like him.

The film has another hero: his wife (and now widow), Chaz. Ebert didn’t marry until he was 50–to a woman who already had grown children. It’s clear that she has been his rock through the tribulations of his final decade. It’s a touching romance, and like all near-perfect love stories, it has to end in death.

And yes, there’s a lot about movies here. We see clips from films as we hear his reviews. Many of those movies are now classics and readily available. But the film’s real nostalgia comes from clips of the TV shows, with Siskel and Ebert agreeing or arguing about one film or another. (Richard Roeper, who became Ebert’s on-screen partner after Siskel died, isn’t even mentioned. I’m not complaining.)

Steve James has given us a completely biased look at Ebert’s life. But it’s also an entertaining and informative work about a man who joyfully embraced both the pleasures of cinema, and of life itself.

Manakamana: A very uneven ride

C+ Documentary

  • Directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez

This documentary shot in Nepal shows us small groups of people in brief, eight-minute segments against beautiful but repetitive scenery. At times it’s touching, funny, boring, lovely, and strange. But ultimately, it becomes repetitive.

Shortly before seeing Manakamana at the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival, Jason Weiner of Jason Watches Movies pointed something out something that made me not want to see this film: It came out of the Sensory Ethnography Lab–the same organization that produced the dreadful Leviathan. I saw it anyway; same collective, but different directors.

And I was right: Manakamana is much better Leviathan. Admittedly, that doesn’t take much. The two documentaries share some stylistic choices. In both, the camera simply observes the world in front of it, without commentary or any seeming opinion. And both spend a lot of time studying faces. But the faces in Manakamana are mostly human . Leviathan concentrates on dead fish.

Manakamana is named for a Hindu temple and pilgrimage site in the Nepalese mountains. The film isn’t about the temple itself; it’s about getting there and returning home.

Once, that was a journey on foot that took many days. But now, thanks to a cable system with hanging gondolas, it’s an eight-minute ride. The gondola has two seats facing each other; each wide one enough to hold several people.

Filmmakers Spray and  Velez simply set their camera on one seat–sometimes the one facing forward, and sometimes the one facing back–and film the person or people sitting across from them. The camera doesn’t move (aside from moving with the gondola) and each ride is shown complete without cuts. This is basically a film without editing.

The hills and valleys are beautiful at first, with that wonderful immersive feeling you get from a camera moving forward across an open space. But the scenery soon loses its luster; after all, we see the same terrain again and again and again.

But Manakamana isn’t really about the scenery, or about Hinduism. It’s about the people sitting across from the camera. At their best, they’re delightful to watch. We get an eight-minute concert by aging traditional musicians. A couple squabble. In the funniest segment, two women returning from the temple try to eat their ice cream bars before they melt and make a mess. (I didn’t know that religious pilgrimage sites sold frozen desserts.)

Animals seem to play an important part, although why is never explained. A group of young, hip-looking musicians take a kitten for the ride. One couple has a chicken. In the weirdest sequence, the gondola seems to have been replaced by a cage overcrowded by very frightened goats.

Nothing is ever explained. The passengers never interact with the filmmakers, and only glance at the camera quickly before looking away. It’s clear that the filmmakers asked them to not look at or acknowledge the camera crew sitting across from them.

Despite the many bright spots, Manakamana lags a good deal. Long before the film was over, I found myself hoping–every time an eight-minute journey came to its end–that it would be the last one.

Red River on Blu-ray: Of men and cattle

To those who consider westerns mindless shoot-em-ups, and dismiss John Wayne as a talentless reactionary symbol, I can think of no better answer than Howard Hawks’ Red River. And outside of a movie theater, I can think of no better way to see it than in this new Criterion Blu-ray release.

In Tom Dunson, Wayne found his first complex, nuanced character–a man who starts out as the movie’s hero and slowly becomes its villain. Even then, he’s an honorable and sympathetic villain, and you understand why he behaves as he does. But you nevertheless root for the other guy.

That other guy is the orphan Tom raised as his own, Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift in his breakout role). They love each other as father and son, but under the strain of a long and dangerous cattle drive, their conflicting ways of handling hardship and managing hired hands turns them against onr another.

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Tom Dunson is a hard and determined man. He killed other men to establish his Texas ranch. In his defense, the other guys always drew first, but they wouldn’t have drawn at all if he was the sort who negotiated. But as the post-Civil War southern economy threatens to destroy all he worked and fought for, he gambles on a dangerous longshot–driving his immense herd across a thousand miles of potentially deadly territory. Matt, ever the loyal son, will help him lead a bunch of hired hands and thousands of cows across mountains and plains that may be infested with rustlers and Comanches.

In addition to Matt, Tom has a sidekick, Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan). Older and in some ways wiser than the others, he’s the loyal friend who tries to steer Tom away from his darker tendencies.

And Tom’s tendencies get very dark. As the drive drags on and the dangers increase, the men begin to grumble. Tom reacts with anger, pigheadedness, bullying, and eventually violence.

But Matt is one apple that clearly fell far from the tree. He treats the men with respect. He listens. He defends them when Tom becomes violent. A confrontation becomes inevitable.

This personal story plays out against an epic background. Russell Harlan’s beautiful black-and-white location photography has the mythic look of a John Ford western–a major departure from Hawks’ usual matter-of-fact visual style. And Dimitri Tiomkin’s magnificent score suggests that there’s something going on beyond the story of two men leading a cattle drive.

Unfortunately, the film reflects the almost subconscious racism of its time. Early on, Duson–basically at this point a squatter– kills a man trying to protect his employer’s property. I don’t believe that would have been acceptable if not for the convenient fact that both employer and employee are Mexican. Native Americans, of course, are treated as simple savages.

Like all great westerns, Red River is about masculinity. But it’s about two kinds of masculinity, and two very different kinds of men.

The ending has generated a lot of controversy since the movie opened in 1948. That’s all I’ll say about it.

The Two Versions

imageIf you’ve already seen Red River, chances are you’ve seen the pre-release version, originally shown in previews. The theatrical version runs about six minutes shorter.

After previewing his original cut in front of audiences, Hawks shortened the film. He also replaced narrative intertitles–designed to look like pages in an old book–with first-person narration by Brennan. That that version screened in theaters in 1948. And that, Hawks always insisted, is the definitive Red River.

And yet the pre-release version somehow got released and accepted as something like a director’s cut. And most people, myself included, prefer the pre-release version. The intertitles enhance the epic feel, while Brennan’s narration just gets annoying. And the ending, considerably shorter in the theatrical version (for legal reasons explained in the extras), works much better in the longer cut. In the theatrical version, everything gets resolved too quickly.

But you can make up your own mind. Criterion gives us both cuts.

First Impression

imageCriterion packages Red River in a thick cardboard box containing a disc sleeve and a book. The book is Borden Chase’s short novel, Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail,  that Chase and Charles Schnee adapted into the Red River screenplay.

The disc sleeve contains four discs and another book. Well, a 28-page booklet with two articles on the film and both film and disc credits.

The discs are stacked, two on the left, and two on the right. You have to remove one disc to get to the one beneath it. This configuration always makes me worry that I’ll damage a disc. I haven’t yet.

The two discs on the left are DVDs; on the right, Blu-rays. Following Criterion’s current policy, everything is on both discs. I only looked at the Blu-rays.

The first disc contains the theatrical cut, plus a few extras. The second contains the pre-release version, with additional extras. I don’t know why they didn’t use Blu-ray’s (and DVD’s) seamless branching feature to put both films on one disc. There would probably have been enough room for all of the extras, as well.

How It Looks

Red River is a beautiful example of 1940s black-and-white photography. Much of the film was shot in twilight or around campfires, requiring good shadow detail. The many long shots, showing wagons, galloping horses, and cows moving across vast stretches of open land require fine detail to make their impact.

Criterion’s 2k transfer manages all of this. Ninety-five percent of the time, this Blu-ray (or perhaps I should say these Blu-rays) looks great–from the mountains to the clothes to the faces seen only in shadow. Unfortunately, one of Red River’s most spectacular shots–a slow pan across the cattle just before the drive starts–looks horrible. In both versions, this shot is ruined by what looks like a combination of heavy film grain and digital artifacts.

How It Sounds

The PCM mono soundtrack is exactly what it should be. It doesn’t try to sound like anything beyond an optical soundtrack from 1948. But it sounds like a pristine soundtrack of the period, played in a really good theater.

And the Extras

By Criterion standards, these disappoint. There’s no commentary track, and no real documentary. Mostly you get interviews, some only in audio.

Disc One: The Theatrical version

  • About the Versions: Just a paragraph of written text about the two cuts.
  • Peter Bogdanovich on Red River: 17 minutes. The film historian and sometimes director explains Hawks’ esthetics and simple visual style. He also discusses the two versions.
  • Hawks and Bogdanovich: Criterion divided this 16-minute this audio interview from 1972 into 7 section. It’s worth a listen. I was surprised to discover that Hawks regretted shooting the film in black and white. Personally, I’m glad he did.
  • Trailer: 2 minutes.

Disc Two: The Prerelease Version

  • Molly Haskell: 16 minutes. The critic and historian discusses Red River’s gender issues, and Hawks’ approach to genre. Like me, she prefers the pre-release cut.
  • Lee Clark Mitchell: 13 minutes, The author of Westerns: making the Man in Fiction and Film talks about the western as a literary and cinematic genre, masculinity, and ties it all to Red River.
  • Borden Chase: 10 minutes. Audio excerpts from a 1969 interview, separated into four chapters. He talks a good deal about how Hawks changed the ending. He wasn’t happy with that.
  • Lux Radio Theatre: 59 minutes. Radio adaptation with much of original cast. I didn’t listen to it.

Red River is already on sale.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Part 2

One of the major problems with life is that it intrudes on watching movies. Saturday, other responsibilities kept me away from the Castro, and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, until mid-afternoon. Among other things, I missed Serge Bromberg’s Treasure Trove. What a pity.

But here’s what I saw on Saturday and Sunday. You can also check out Thursday and Friday in San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Part 1.

Underground

We got two introductions to this British melodrama from 1928. First, Bryony Dixon of the British Film Institute talked about the restoration. "It can take a very long time to [raise the money] for a big restoration costing hundreds of thousands of pounds. It took, I think, 15 years to get this one going." Initially, all they had was a fourth-generation print. They found another source in Brussels, and "We were able to combine these elements" to make the restoration.

Now that I’ve seen the restoration and the movie, I’d call it money well spent.

Next, Leonard Maltin introduced the movie. "I’ve seen this film once before. I remember liking it." He talked about the great film collector and historian William K. Everson, and the "visual flair" you find only in late silent films. "No one was untouched by the work of Murnau and other innovators of that period…It seems kind of a shame that just when filmmaking had reached this pinnacle, sound came along and everything froze."

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Underground is not about criminals or black-market economics, but the London subway system. When the movie started, I assumed it would follow Aristotle’s unity of place, and contain all (or almost all) of its action within the subway system. I was wrong, and a bit disappointed. It opens and closes in the subway, and two main characters work there, but it’s set all around working-class London.

But really, I didn’t have much to be disappointed about. Underground is a fun melodrama about a cad, a nice guy, a nice girl, and a mentally unhinged young woman. A great deal of it was shot on location, with a real sense of London in the late 20s.

Stephen Horne gave his usual fantastic one-man-ensemble accompaniment. I could see him from my seat, and noticed him playing flute, accordion, clarinet, and piano. I think he’s part octopus.

Under the Lantern

Weimar Germany must have had a thing about prostitutes. The Germans filmed a lot of downbeat tragedies about girls sliding into the oldest profession and suffering the consequences. Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl are unique only in being better than the others. (It helped, of course, to have Louise Brooks.)

In Under the Lantern, we follow the fate of a young woman who goes dancing without her overly-strict father’s permission. She takes up with her boyfriend, joins a vaudeville act, becomes a kept woman, and is eventually reduced to walking the streets. But don’t worry; worse things are ahead.

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It’s an often-told story, reasonably well-done, although slower than it needed to be. It worked well enough to make me hope that she could turn her life around.

But it had one big problem: The star, Lissy Arna, while an excellent silent actress, was not the ravishing beauty that the story required. And she looked too old in the early scenes. When an intertitle told us that she was underage, I wondered just what age constituted adulthood in the Weimar Republic…35?

Many of the film’s flaws were papered over by the Donald Sosin Ensemble. Their European and yet jazzy score carried all of the film’s rich emotions, and deepened the otherwise shallow sequences. Occasionally, someone on screen would turn on a phonograph. When this happened, the musicians stopped playing and we were treated with recordings off of old 78s.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West In the Land of the Bolsheviks

The Soviet Union was a pretty horrible place to live in 1924. World War, revolution, civil war, and an experimental economy had shaken the nation to the core. No one quite yet knew how much freedom of expression would be allowed. (Final answer: not much.)

And yet, in that very year, Russian film theoretician Lev Kuleshov created one of the most intentionally silly comedies I’ve ever seen. The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West In the Land of the Bolsheviks (let’s just call it Extraordinary Adventures) makes Duck Soup feel like neorealism.

The title character is an American executive who comes to the newly-Communist Russia on business, brandishing a fur coat, Harold Lloyd glasses, and an American flag. His sidekick and bodyguard is a cowboy with a quick draw and a slow brain (Mr. West isn’t any smarter). They almost immediately fall in with a bunch of con artists intent on taking advantage of their ignorance and fear to separate them from their money.

I have to give a special shout out for Aleksandra Khokhlova as the "sexy" con artist. As skinny and flexible as Popeye’s Olive Oyl, she comes off as a strange, warped, and hilarious caricature of a human being. Like everyone else in the movie, she’s a broad stereotype, but her bizarre performance is funnier than any other.

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It seems strange that a movie intended to be Communist propaganda would show almost all of its Russians as liars and thieves. Only near the end do honest Bolsheviks appear, and only then does Extraordinary Adventures become Communist propaganda.

The Mattie Bye Ensemble did a great job accompanying the feature.

Extraordinary Adventures ended Saturday’s program. I had a nasty surprise on my way home. When I arrived at the North Berkeley BART station around noon, I discovered that someone had stolen my bicycle.

Now, on to Sunday:

Seven Years Bad Luck

The always entertaining Serge Bromberg introduced this 1921 Max Linder comedy. More to the point, he introduced Linder.

Max Linder is probably cinema’s first comic star. He started making shorts in his native France in 1905, and came to the USA in 1916. He went back and forth between the two countries until his 1925 suicide.

The festival screened two American Linder comedies: the 1917 short Max Wants a Divorce and the 1921 feature, Seven Years Bad Luck. This was my first Linder experience, and I found him funny–often hilarious. Linder reminded me of an upper-class Charlie Chase—dapper, normal, and stuck in funny situations. It’s clear that he influenced Chase, but then, he influenced everyone.

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Unfortunately, the feature hit its comic peak early. Max’s servants conspire to keep him ignorant of a broken mirror. One servant, who vaguely resembles Linder, stands on the other side of the empty mirror frame and imitates his master’s every move while shaving. It’s the old mirror routine (Groucho and Harpo did it in Duck Soup), but I’ve never seen it done so well as it’s done here.

The rest of the film plays fine, but never again reaches that level. Max keeps expecting to have a lot of bad luck. That sort of thing tends to be self-fulfilling.

Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius collaborated on the musical accompaniment. It was fine.

Dragnet Girl

Earlier this year, New York’s Antohology Flm Archives ran a series called "Auteurs Gone Wild"–films by major directors that are not in the director’s usual style (see Rare Lubitsch in New York). Yasujiro Ozu’s Dragnet Girl would have fit right in. As Noir City’s Eddie Muller explained it when he introduced the picture on Sunday, it was quite a surprise to discover that Ozu, known for his quiet and contemplative family dramas and low-key comedies, "made a 1930s Warner Brothers gangster movie."

Muller also talked about the "absolutely dazzling camera movement," more "like a Martin SCorceses fever dream" than anything by Ozu. The future director of Tokyo Story clearly wanted to make an American film; posters and signs are all in English.

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The movie definitely has style. It’s flashy and fun to watch. And Kinuyo Tanaka is wonderful as a seemingly innocent young girl who’s really a tough-as-nails moll. Well, maybe she’s not as tough as she seems. The exceptionally handsome Joji Oka brings energy and charisma to the part of her gangster boyfriend–a Japanese James Cagney. But the story manages to be both weak and confusing. In the end, it just didn’t do much for me.

To accompany Dragnet Girl, Gunter Buchwald played piano and violin, with Frank Bockius on the drums. Their jazz-infused music was everything it should have been.

The Girl in Tails

This 1926 Swedish romance starts similarly to Under the Lantern. A young woman disobeys her father’s orders to go dancing. But this time, breaking the rules and making trouble results in love and happiness, not tragedy.

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Actually, her father doesn’t object to her going to the ball; he just won’t pay for the needed clothes. This is particularly unfair because he gives her brother a seemingly limitless clothing budget. So she steals her brother’s white tie and tails, and goes to the dance in drag.

And let me add that the film’s star, Magda Holm, looks very fetching in men’s formalwear.

Of course she scandalizes the town, but she has a few defenders, including the very wealthy young man she obviously loves. You never really worry that things will not come out right.

The Girl in Tails goes on too long, and overstays its welcome by about 15 minutes. But it’s such a warm, generous, and subversive movie that you can forgive a few slow spots.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra did their usual wonderful accompaniment.

The Sign of the Four

I was a huge Sherlock Holmes fan in my early teens, and I’ve reread all of the stories over the last few years. The second novel, The Sign of the Four, is one of my favorites. It’s an atmospheric mystery with a good action climax. And Watson gets to fall in love.

Eille Norwood played Holmes in something like 45 movies, mostly shorts, from 1921-23. The Sign of Four, a feature, was his last.

It’s hard to imagine how the dialog-heavy Sherlock Holmes stories could work in silent film, but they do. After all, much of the talking in the original stories involve one person telling another about what happened. All you need is a flashback and you’re back to telling a story visually.

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Norwood is one of the best Holmes of the screen, up there will Rathbone, Brett, and Cumberbatch. He underplays the great detective, moving little and seeing all. His is a contemplative Holmes, a man always in the process of thinking.

On the other hand, Arthur M. Cullin makes a poor choice for Watson–especially for The Sign of the Four. Flabby, plain-looking, and dull, there’s nothing here for Mary Morstan to fall in love with. Cullins didn’t play Watson in any of the other Norwood Holmes films, which makes this choice odder.

The film follows the book relatively closely, but when it deviates, it goes off in the wrong direction. Specifically, in the "innocent white girl menaced by evil dark people" direction.

Oh, well. It was fun, anyway.

Donald Sosin (on piano) with Guenter Buchwald (on violin) kept everything lively.

Harbor Drift

Sleep deprivation is a major problem with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. At least it is for me. If I try to attend everything, I don’t get enough sleep.

And that’s why I’m not really qualified to tell you about Harbor Drift, yet another German film about poverty and prostitution. The movie started, and I fell immediately to sleep. I think it was about half over when I woke up.

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From what I saw, it was well made, with daring camera angles and wild editing. I couldn’t really get a handle on the characters, but the main ones seemed real and sympathetic.

Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius’ accompaniment sounded fine, even in my dreams.

The Navigator

The closing show of the Festival presented one of Buster Keaton’s most beloved works. It was the only film screened that I’m really familiar with. This was my fourth time seeing The Navigator theatrically. (I also own the Blu-ray.)

This is not my favorite Keaton, but it’s still a very fun movie. Keaton and Kathryn McGuire play spoiled rich kids adrift on an otherwise deserted ocean liner with no power. Thus, two people who can’t boil water have to make due in an environment designed for feeding hundreds.

This provides for plenty of great comic sequences. Buster tries to put an unconscious Kathryn into an uncooperative deck chair. The two, working together, manage to create a pot of coffee comprised of three beans and a couple of quarts of salt water. A small cannon with a lit fuse manages to always point at Buster.

In my favorite sequence, Buster tries to shuffle and deal a pack of cards so wet that they’re dissolving in his hands. Kathryn got the cards wet in the first place, and chivalry demands that he ignore their soggy condition.

Unfortunately, the Matti Bye Ensemble added too many bizarre and weird sound effects. At first they were funny, but soon they just got in the way of the truly funny stuff going on onscreen.

Nevertheless, watching Buster Keaton with 1,500 other fans is always a wonderful experience. It was a good way to end an enjoyable, if exhausting, weekend.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Part 1

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is the closest thing to a movie marathon I’ve experienced in decades. For three of its four days, it runs movie after movie from 10:00am until nearly midnight, with breaks that generally last an hour or less. Seeing everything–or almost everything–requires stamina and sleep deprivation.

Attending the festival, and blogging about it, takes Herculean efforts.

Here’s what I’ve seen so far:

The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse

Festival President Robert Byrne started things off with a little pep talk, thanking sponsors, noting that this is the 19th year, and talking about the feature.

The movie started only 15 minutes after the scheduled time. For any festival’s opening night, it’s excellent.

If you want to see the value of star power, there’s no better example than Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Rudolf Valentino  was just another handsome face when he was cast in this film, receiving only fourth billing. But he owns the picture. His open likeability, his energy, and his exceptional sexuality dominate this epic about Argentinians caught up in World War I.

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Valentino was a competent actor, although not a great one. Occasionally, he’s horrible. But his magnetism overwhelms his flaws.

The family dynamics of the story are a bit complicated. Let’s just say that a wealthy Argentine family develops into separate French and German forks. The French move to France, the Germans move to Germany, and war puts them on separate sides.

It’s an antiwar movie, of course, but a flawed one. The message seems to be "War is evil, and Germans are evil because they love war." Germans are inherently bad guys in this film’s worldview.

The picture is big, epic, and spectacular. It drags a bit in the first half, but is overall good fun, despite the anti-German sentiment. And Valentino makes it a much better film than it would otherwise be.

The 35mm print was tinted and mostly beautiful. Some scenes were soft; I assume they came from an inferior source. For some reason, it was projected at an aspect ratio that was too narrow even for a silent. Occasionally the sides looked cropped.

The Mont Alto Silent Picture Orchestra did their usual wonderful accompaniment.

Amazing Tales from the Archives

This Friday morning free show is always one of the Festival’s highlights. Once again, Robert Byrne got it started. "I love the smell of nitrate in the morning. It smells of history."

This year’s tales came in three segments.

First, Bryony Dixon, Curator of Silent Film for the British Film Institute, showed us some early nature films–forerunners of David Attenborough’s work. The best sequences involved bees and beekeeping, and required experimental lenses.

Next, Dan Streible of the Orphan Film Symposium discussed one of the most famous films to come out of Edison’s laboratory, The Sneeze. Thanks to the discovery of a new paper print, we now know that this laboratory experiment ran twice as long as anyone suspected. Yes, Fred Ott sneezed twice!

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He also used some of his talk to criticize digital, proclaiming that "digital film is an oxymoron." I disagree, but I should read his article on the matter anyway.

He ended his presentation with a little gem that I saw once maybe 35 or 36 years ago: Raymond Rohauer Presents the Sneeze–a two-minute gem by David Shepard. You have to know about the silent film restoration/copyright battles of 60s and 70s to appreciate this one.

Finally, special effects designer Craig Barron and sound effects creator Ben Burtt took the stage to discuss Charlie Chaplin’s his use of technology. Their point was to dispel the myth that Chaplin was a luddite, interested in the camera only as a way to record his silent performances. Barron and Burtt showed he used trick photography, and Burtt discussed his use of sound effects in City Lights and Modern Times.

These two are always worth listening to.

Song of the Fishermen

They were still making silent movies in China in 1934, although sound was beginning to sneak in. Song of the Fishermen is a bit like the Jazz Singer. Basically a silent film, but every so often, the lead character breaks into song.

The star, Wang Renmei, was both a movie and a singing star at the time.

The movie was shot in horrible conditions on location in a very poor fishing village. The singing was dubbed in later.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t too impressed with Song of the Fisherman–a story about a sister and brother struggling to survive in a depressed fishing village. Many individual scenes worked well, but the continuity was confusing and I often felt unsure about what was going on. After the film, I talked to others who had the same experience.

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It was beautifully shot, but the excellent photography was marred by a poor print source and a worse digital transfer. Fades and dissolves showed very bad digital artifacts.

Donald Soshan’s piano work was fine. But three times he stopped playing and the film’s original soundtrack took over, so we could hear Wang Renmei singing. Sometimes it was out of sync.

Life sometimes gets in the way of going to movies, and I had to return to the East Bay after Song of the Fishermen. I made it back to the Castro in time for the 10:00pm screening of…

Cosmic Voyage

Experimental filmmaker Craig Baldwin selected this Soviet sci-fi for the Festival, and introduced it. "One reason I picked it is it has a sense of otherness. My own films deal with technology. Mine are more pessimistic."

He spoke about as fast as is humanly possible. I think my typed notes are accurate.

"The film is a lesson in itself about how soviet film played out. And it’s a children’s film. It would have been popular, but it was pulled. The benefit of it being a silent is the crucial role of montage. The odd angles, the willingness to take chances, and the release from melodrama."

That’s Baldwin’s view. Here’s mine:

Cosmic Voyage feels like something George Pal would have made in the 1950s, except that it’s a silent film made on the other side of the iron curtain. A brilliant but loveable scientist with a Santa-like beard, a young boy brimming with pluck, and a beautiful young woman convince the powers that be that their rocket is safe. Then they go to the moon, have some adventures there, and return home.

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In many ways, the science is remarkably accurate for its time. Zero gee starts when the thruster rockets stop. The moon has gravity, but it’s so weak that the explorers can make big leaps.

On the other hand, the spaceship has a very high ceiling, which is a big waste in a spaceship (Pal made the same mistake in When World’s Collide). And who can forget a timeless intertitle like "You gather the atmosphere. I’ll rescue the cat." This and other intertitles were in Russian; Frank Buxton read an English translation out loud as the film played.

In other words, the whole thing is charming, silly, and entertaining. I wish it was readily available in this country.

But I don’t understand the festival’s scheduling decision. This is a kid’s movie, and should have screened as a matinee. The 3:00 show that day (which I missed) was called Midnight Madness; that sounds like a better late-night movie.

The print, which I believe was digital, looked great. The Silent Movie Music Company accompanied Cosmic Voyage. They did a good job.

SFIFF: Manakamana

I just caught the documentary Manakamana, an American-made film shot and set in a very specific location in Nepal.

The setting: a cable car that takes people to a Hindu temple high in the mountains. Filmmaakers Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez set their camera in one seat and watch the people in the other, as well as the scenery behind them. The camera doesn’t move and each 8-minute ride is shown without cuts. The scenery is beautiful at first, but loses its luster as it’s repeated. The passengers, who clearly were told not to look at or acknowledge the camera and filmmakers, are sometimes boring and sometimes interesting. Despite some bright spots, I soon found myself disapointed when another trip started.

I give this film a C+.

 Manakamanawill screen again on Sunday, April 27 a the New People Cinema, and Monday, May 5 at the Kabuki. 

San Francisco International Film Festival Opening Night

This year’s San Francisco International Film Festival officially opened last night at the Castro, with a screening of The Two Faces of January. It was, as you’d expect, a packed and festive occasion. 

But it got off on a bad note, and an all too common one at festival big nights at the Catro. Almost the entire center section of the house was blocked off as "reserved." Some rows were blocked off for filmmakers, others for the opening night sponsor, RBC Capital, and others just blocked off. If you were simply a regular moviegoer who had bought a ticket, you had to settle for the side sections, the balcony, or the front six rows of the center section.

Luckily for me, I like sitting front and center, and was quite happy in the second row.

It was a pretty full theater, but not entirely full. One seat next to me was empty.

Well before the 7:00 start time, we were treated to an organ concert and the usual SFIFF slide show. The organ was in it’s highest position, blocking the screen. No big loss. I know I’ll be bored with that slideshow soon enough.

At 7:07, the organ concert ended, the lights went down, and the new Executive Director, Noah Cowan, took the stage. It was, as he acknowledged, his first time "on stage a the Castro."

Cowen gave the usual thanks–to his staff, his predecessors, and of course the sponsors.  It’s a pity that a great institution like the San Francisco Film Society has to go begging to corporations, but that’s the world we live in.

Director of Programming Rachel Rosen came up next. She talked about communities, both of film lovers and filmmakers. Then she introduced Hossein Amini, who wrote and directed the night’s film.

The Two Faces of January is Amini’s first film as a director, although he’s well established as a screenwriter (The Wings of the Dove, Drive).  "I’m normally a writer who works on a computer," he told the audience, "so it’s nice to get out and be a director." He talked briefly about the Patricia Highsmith novel the film is based on. He had read it years ago, back when he was in college.

The movie starting at 7:19. That’s extremely punctual for a festival opening night at the Castro. .

Now then, about the movie:

A Two Faces of January
The less you know about this thriller when you walk into the theater, the more you’re going to enjoy it. This is the rare thriller that gives you time to become familiar with the characters, lets you wonder if any of them are evil, then draws them into a life-or-death situation that seems all too plausible (at least while you’re watching it). It follows the fortunes, and mostly the misfortunes, of three Americans (played by Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, and Oscar Isaac) spending what’s supposed to be leisure time in Greece in the early 1960s. Their predicament doesn’t remain leisurely. The slow pacing helps make The Two Faces of January such a wonderful film. Not only does it allow the story and the characters room to breath; it also adds to the suspense.

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After the film, Rosen and Amini returned to the stage for some Q&A. Here are a few highlights:

  • On why he adapted a novel he’d read decades ago: "It just kept coming back. I kept re-imaginging it in my mind."
  • On his approach to adaptation in general: "You read a book and you feel you have a special understanding. I had a real intimate relationship with this book. That’s adaptation. I just recognized things in myself….If the book has strong characters, you can add new scenes and change things and still be loyal to the book."
  • On preparing to direct: "I directed it in my head when I wrote it. I storyboarded everything. we didn’t end up using the storyboards that much."
  • One audience member asked if directing changed his writing process? "You lose a certain innocence You think about budgets and shots. It’s something I recommend all writers do; stay involved with the filmmaking process. The more writers get involved with that, the more they become better writers."

There was a party afterwards, but I chose not to attend. I needed a good night’s sleep.

The Two Faces of January has been picked up by Magnolia Pictures, and will get a theatrical release, probably in September.

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