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.

Little nutrition: My review of Soul of a Banquet

D documentary

  • Directed by Wayne Wang

Note: This documentary will screen twice at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Details below. I am posting a full review now because this picture was not on the Festival’s list of films for which reviewers were asked to hold reviews.

In his first documentary, the usually reliable Wayne Wang appears to have missed the point. He suggests that his subject, restaurateur Cecilia Chiang, led a fascinating and exciting life (and is still living it). But he gives us little information, and spends most of the picture just showing us food.

According to Wang’s interview subjects (primarily food author Ruth Reichl and Chez Panisse owner and founder Alice Waters) Chiang changed everything about Chinese food in America–and all of it for the better. Before she opened her restaurant, The Mandarin, in San Francisco in 1961, Chinese restaurants served what Reichl describes as "peasant food." Then Chiang apparently came along, and we’ve been happily eating delicious Chinese gourmet food ever since.

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But the film gives us little or nothing to support these claims. Was The Mandarin commercially successful? That never comes up. Did other Chinese restaurants start following her lead? Having seen the movie, I can’t tell you. But if they didn’t, how was she influential? We’re told off-handedly that The Mandarin no longer exists, but we’re never told when or why it closed.

In the interview-heavy first part of the film, Wang occasionally shows us the workings of a high-class Chinese restaurant kitchen. As I watched these, I assumed they were taken in The Mandarin. When the film casually mentioned that The Mandarin is no more, I felt cheated.

And what about that fascinating and exciting life? We’re given only a handful of enticing tidbits. We know she grew up in China, the youngest daughter of a large and wealthy family. An off-hand comment and some quick math in my head told me that she left China before 1942. She was married and living in Japan in 1961 when, as tourist, she almost accidentally acquired a San Francisco restaurant. In the film’s best sequence, she describes a heart-breaking 1972 visit to her family China, when the Cultural Revolution was winding down but still powerful and deadly.

But these little facts just leave us wondering. Why did she leave China? How did she end up in Japan? (With what little I know about the Japanese occupation of China, I can imagine the worst.) What happened to her marriage when she started a restaurant thousands of miles from her husband and home? How did she replace her tourist visa with something more permanent?

What little information we get is concentrated into that first part of this three-part, 78-minute feature. The second section shows her supervising a staff of professional cooks preparing a lavish banquet for friends in her apartment. Very little is explained. We see mostly extreme close-ups of knives chopping food. The knives are handled with exceptional skill, but you can only watch so much of this sort of thing.

In the third and final part, we watch the banquet. As each dish is served, she explains what it is, we get close-ups of the scrumptious-looking delicacy, and we watch her guests (which include Reichl and Waters) joyfully examine and then eat the wonderful concoctions.

This endless parade of close ups, intended to produce a sensual experience that cinema can only create by suggestion, felt very much like pornography. And like so much pornography, it eventually became boring.

Now I have to come clean about something that may have affected my reaction to these scenes. I’m a vegetarian, and have been for a very long time. When I look at meat, no matter how well cooked and displayed, I don’t see it as food. I see it as a dead animal.

On the other hand, I love Chinese food. It’s one of my favorite cuisines. So I think that one prejudice probably cancelled out the other.

Whether you eat meat or not, I don’t think you’ll find much to love about Soul of a Banquet. It lacks the information needed to back up its argument. It lacks a sense of what can and cannot be recreated in a visual medium. And frankly, despite the wonderful and creative people in front of and behind the camera, it lacks soul.

Mill Valley Film Festival Soul of a Banquet screenings:

  • Rafael,  Sunday, October 5, 5:00. Director Wayne Wang and subject Cecilia Chiang in attendance.
  • Sequoia, Tuesday, October 7, 2:15.

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.

The enduring racism of Gone with the Wind

I find it disturbing that so many people still love Gone with the Wind. I’m not talking about esthetics here (although I do discuss those below), but content. Even by the standards of Hollywood in the first half of the 20th century, David O. Selznick’s epic comes off as exceptionally racist.

Warner Brothers, which did not make Gone with the Wind but now owns it, is making a big to-do this month over its 75th anniversary. They’ll start with a big presentation to a lot of big multiplexes, followed by a major new Blu-ray Ultimate Collector’s Edition. Over the years, Warner released multiple Blu-ray editions, including an extensive three-disc box set which they sent me for my 2010 Blu-ray gift guide. I didn’t include it in the guide, because I didn’t have the space to discuss the film’s celebration of slavery.

gwtw

You can’t extensively watch American films made before the Civil Rights Movement without growing a thick skin about casual racism. I’ve grown a sufficient skin to enjoy and recommend Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances, despite its cake-walking, idiotic hired hand–played by a white actor in blackface. I love Seven Chances, but every time that character comes on screen, I stop laughing and cringe.

It’s one thing to use racist stereotypes for a cheap laugh (and make no mistake; I do not excuse such images). But it’s something entirely different to seriously look back nostalgically at the “good old days” of slavery, and to suggest that emancipation had been at best a tragic mistake, and at worst an evil revenge against the gallant South. Selznick made this worldview clear from the very start with an onscreen prologue:

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called The Old South…Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow…Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their ladies fair, of Master and of Slave…Look for it only in books for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind…

Hey, if my parents wanted me to grow up mythologizing the old South, they wouldn’t have named me Lincoln.

GWTW isn’t the only Hollywood movie to take that attitude. The following year, Warner Brothers released Santa Fe Trail, which preached that the whole tragedy of the Civil War could have been avoided if northerners had just understood the wonderful institution of slavery. And Hollywood’s first big blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation, outdoes them all, combining GWTW’s slave-owner’s world view with Seven Chances’ black-faced buffoons. Birth’s exciting climax involves the Ku Klux Klan riding to the rescue.

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Today, Santa Fe Trail is largely forgotten. And Birth of a Nation is more famous for its racism than for its its importance in advancing the art and business of cinema. Almost a century after its world premiere, to screen Birth in a theater is to invite vandalism. I actually believe that Birth should be seen, but only in a historical context.

But Gone with the Wind plays in theaters, and gets yet another Blu-ray release, with very little controversy. My copy has a disc filled with over eight hours of extras, in which I found only one suggestion that there may be questionable content. Putting one short subject into historical perspective, a newly-recorded narration warns that some elements are “today considered unacceptable.” I don’t know why they couldn’t say the same about the feature.

Gone with the Wind is still a popular film, and to some degree, I can see why. The first half is a thrilling, exciting epic about the collapse of a civilization, beautifully staged and shot. The picture bogs down in the post-war second half. That’s when I find myself waiting for enough main characters to die so it can end. But even in that second half, it’s still gorgeous to look at.

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Production designer William Cameron Menzies took the six-year-old three-strip Technicolor format into new dimensions with his magnificent visuals. The colors seem hyper-realistic, yet they evoke the characters’ attitudes and emotions. Note the big ball sequence, awash with colorful costumes. But Scarlett and Rhett are dressed in black, drawing our eyes to them and reminding us that they will eventually fall in love (unfortunately, I couldn’t find a good still from that scene). With Gone With the Wind, color stopped being a gimmick, and became part of the story.

And yet, in another sense of the word, color is the problem. This isn’t just a beautifully-designed and rousing epic that turns boring after the intermission. It’s a reminder of just how acceptable racism was in American a scant 75 years ago. And as long as the film is regularly shown without discussion of that context, our problem with race won’t get any better.

How I lost my love for Stanley Kubrick

45 years ago, when I was a teenager enthralled by 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick was not only the greatest living filmmaker, but the greatest filmmaker of all time (I didn’t know much film history back then). Today, I see him as a flawed genius–a brilliant visual artist lacking the warmth and empathy needed to be a great auteur.

With a complete retrospective about to open at the Pacific Film Archive, it seemed like a good time to discuss his checkered career and my reactions to it..

The first Stanley Kubrick film I ever saw was Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (the title links in this article point to the webpages for the films’ upcoming PFA screenings). I must have been about ten, and I didn’t know it was a Stanley Kubrick film; I didn’t know what director was back then. I but liked this dark satire about the cold war and the fear of nuclear Armageddon very much. I still do. I discussed the movie in more detail last year.

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I was not quite 14 when I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Warner Cinerama on Hollywood Blvd. On the huge, deeply-curved screen, it blew me away. I felt like I was in space. This was my first confrontation with film as a serious art form. I instantly became a ardent fan of Stanley Kubrick (and screenplay collaborator Arthur C. Clarke).

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But over the years, with each new long-awaited release, I lost my affection for Kubrick’s work. A Clockwork Orange was interesting, but flawed. Barry Lyndon was an unbearable bore. I didn’t bother to see The Shining, despite–or perhaps because–I loved Stephen King’s novel so much. The book worked because King made you care deeply about Jack and his family. By 1980, I had realized that Kubrick didn’t care, and didn’t want you to care, about any of his characters.

Sometimes, not caring about the characters helped the film. If we had cared about anyone in Strangelove, we wouldn’t have laughed. And the shallow, barely-emotional astronauts of 2001 suggested a dehumanized future.

Kubrick’s best work, in my opinion, came early in his career, before the coldness really took hold. His first Hollywood film, The Killing–easily one of his best–is cool, but not too cold. A brilliant noir about a complex robbery, it’s precise and distant, like much of Kubrick’s work. But the movie seems to like its ill-fated crooks, especially Sterling Hayden as the brains behind the heist.

His next, Paths of Glory, is to my mind his absolute best. A brilliant war and anti-war film, it shows not only the hell of battle but the corruption and heartlessness at the top. But now, for the first time, Kubrick had a really big star–Kirk Douglas. Douglas wasn’t about to play someone that the audience wouldn’t root for, and Kubrick had to alter his screenplay to make the star’s character more of a conventional movie hero. Yes, this was Hollywood commercialism, but in this case, it worked for the quality of the picture.

Kubrick’s other collaboration with Douglas, Spartacus, is easily his warmest work. It doesn’t feel at all like a Stanley Kubrick film. And that’s not surprising, because it really wasn’t one. It wasn’t Kubrick’s idea. He came in a week into production to replace a fired director. He had no say in the screenplay or the casting. At the risk of offending hardcore auteurists, Spartacus was directed by Stanley Kubrick, but it is not a Stanley Kubrick film. And frankly, I think it’s all the better for it.

In the late 1950s, Stanley Kubrick was a brilliant, young, promising filmmaker. But a decade later, he seemed to have lost his touch with humanity. He had become a photographer.

To be a Gay Japanese-American Sci-Fi Actor and the Subject of To Be Takei

B+ Documentary

  • Directed by Jennifer M. Kroot

Who would have guessed that, almost 50 years after Star Trek first premiered on NBC, George Takei would be the most beloved member of the original cast. But why not. He has a warm, upbeat personality and a great sense of humor. He’s been a political activist for decades, but always came off as a nice activist. He’s a master of social media. And by publically coming out late in life, he’s provided his story with a happy ending of triumph over bigotry.

Jennifer M. Kroot has created an ordinary documentary about an extraordinary man. It’s a typical collection of interviews, video of Takei and his husband Brad Altman going about their daily business (except that this time there’s a camera on them), and old movie and TV clips. But it works because Takei is such an interesting and likeable personality, with has a great life story to tell.

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The bigotry started early. As a young boy living in Los Angeles, he and his family were rounded up by the army and sent to an internment camp for the sin of being Americans of Japanese decent. After spending three years of his childhood behind barbed wire, he returned to a civilian America that had been taught to despise all "Japs."

As a young, struggling actor, he found that his race limited his roles to dubbing Godzilla movies and playing comic stereotypes.

And then there was his sexual orientation. To publically come out was professional suicide, and remained so long after the gay rights movement really got going in the ’70s. So he lived a lie, hiding his long-term relationship with Altman, until he publically came out at the age of 67. But instead of destroying his career, it rejuvenated it.

Kroot’s techniques don’t always work. In one sequence, she cuts between different venues where Takei gives the same speech about the internment camps. Rather than providing visual variety or showing his commitment, the cutting emphasizes that he’s repeating a memorized and rehearsed speech.

Another problem: Although Takei is funny and charismatic, Altman is none of those things, and we see almost as much of him as we see of Takei. It takes a while to warm up to the practical, pessimistic Altman (who now uses the last name Takei). He comes off as a decent person, and obviously the right man for George, but too normal to be a major player in a documentary.

But Takei is interesting, as are the other Star Trek veterans interviewed. (Yes, Takei and William Shatner really do dislike each other.) The film and TV clips are fun. We get a brief section about the gay-porn aspect of Star Trek fan fiction (which concentrates on Kirk and Spock). And it’s rare to see a documentary with such a sense of triumph.

To Be Takei really does feel like a happy ending.

SF Silent Film Festival Makes a September Appearance

We get another day this year of massive silent movie overload. It’s coming September 20, when the San Francisco Silent Film Festival takes over the Castro for their first Silent Autumn event. According to a festival press release, "We’ve moved our annual winter event to fall ," although September in my book counts more like late summer.

The program leans toward the well-loved and famous rather than the curious and obscure. The three features will be The Son of the Sheik (1:00), The General (7:00), and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (9:00). If you know anything about silent films, you’re probably already familiar with these titles.

But just because you know the titles doesn’t mean you’ve experienced them with a good print, live music, and an enthusiastic audience.

Buster Keaton pushed film comedy like no one else when he made The General. He meticulously recreated the Civil War setting, mixed slapstick comedy with battlefield death, and  hired thousands of extras. He filmed what may be the single most expensive shot of the silent era, then used that shot as the setup for a gag whose punch line is a simple close-up. The result was a critical and commercial flop in 1926, but today it’s rightly considered one of the greatest comedies ever made.

The General

I’ve seen The General many times theatrically–most recently at the Oakland Paramount. I’ve even seen it–at the Castro many years ago–with the Alloy Orchestra, who will accompany it at the Autumn event. I don’t recall much about their score, but it didn’t move me as much as some other General scores, such as Carl Davis’ and Christoph Bull’s.

The Alloy Orchestra will also accompany The Son of the Sheik. I’ve only seen this one once, about 40 years ago, at Hollywood’s fabled Silent Movie Theater. They screened it with a needle-drop score, rather than with live accompaniment. I look forward to seeing it properly. (I might prepare for it by seeing The Sheik first.)

Son of the Sheik

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari helped launch the German expressionist movement, and it’s about as expressionistic as they come. It’s quite possibly the weirdest horror film I’ve ever seen. Donald Sosin will accompany.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

In addition to these features, this one-day festival will include two collections of shorts. Both will be accompanied by Sosin.

The first, Another Fine Mess: Silent Laurel and Hardy Shorts (11:00am), is exactly what the name implies. Remembered primarily for their talkies, Laurel and Hardy were also the last great stars of silent comedy; their characters gelled and their fame rose just before sound came in. The website only lists two titles: Two Tars (which I haven’t seen) and Big Business (which I love). They’ll probably screen one or two others; I’m hoping for Liberty and/or The Battle of the Century.

Big Business
The second collection of shorts will be A Night At the Cinema In 1914 (3:30). Put together by the British Film Institute, this collection of 14 shorts recreates the experience of watching a typical English movie-going experience from the dawn of World War I.

I know where I’m going to be September 20.

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