Jackie Robinson, Michael Sam, Sports, and the Movies

Yes, this post is about a movie, but I’ll get to that later.

Call it a coincidence. This evening, I happened to read an article about Michael Sam, a successful college football player who appears (or had appeared) to have a promising future in the NFL. On Sunday, he came out. According to ESPN, “Sam could become the first openly gay player in the history of the NFL."

I don’t follow professional sports, but good for him.

As it happened, this evening I watched The Jackie Robinson Story. Made in 1950, soon after Robinson broke baseball’s color line, it’s a super low-budget programmer starring Robinson himself. I suspect it was marketed exclusively to African-American audiences in those segregated days.

Robinson, who never acted before or after, does a reasonably good job playing himself (that’s more difficult than you think). You see his hope, his confidence, his fears, and the struggles he has suppressing his well-earned anger. He also, of course, has the good looks, the physical grace, and the athletic abilities that the part calls for. There’s a lot of baseball action, and it’s him for real.

By the way, there’s one future star in the picture: Ruby Dee, playing his his wife. I’d never seen her so young.

This is a film about race even more than its a film about baseball. A great many players, coaches, sports commentators, and fans did not want him to succeed. When he stepped up to the plate, he was booed. He persevered.

Cheaply made and simplistic, The Jackie Robinson Story still manages to move you. As bad as American racism is today, this picture reminds you how much worse it once was. And you can’t help admire this athlete who stood up against it.

Which brings up a question. In 64 years, will someone watch The Michael Sam Story on whatever they’re showing movies on then, and be reminded just how homophobic America was in the early 21st century.

The Jackie Robinson Story is available on Hulu Plus.

Crime on both sides of the border: Saturday at Noir City

I spent Saturday at the Castro, taking in the first full day of the Noir City festival. It was a long day–a triple-bill matinee, a short dinner break, and a double-bill evening show. Mexico was the common theme.

Technically speaking, only the matinee had a Mexican theme. It started with a Hollywood thriller about illegal immigration with a Mexican hero. That was followed by two Mexican movies. All three films were pretty obscure, at least for American audiences.

The evening event screened two classic, well-loved noirs, both recently restored. The first one ended in Mexico; the second was mostly set there, although the main characters were all American.

Amazingly, all three of the American films–made in the late 40s and early 50s–managed to avoid the most obnoxious of Mexican stereotypes. The Mexican characters were as intelligent, hard-working, honest, and decent as the American characters. On the other hand, since this was noir, that’s not saying much.

The Matinee

B Border Incident
Nothing provides perspective like a 65-year-old film about one of the most controversial subjects of our own time. If made today, this 1949 MGM thriller about illegal immigration would anger both sides. The immigrants are treated sympathetically– as exploited victims. Those who smuggle them across the border and put them to work picking crops are evil villains in the great noir tradition. Those in law enforcement–Yankee and Mexican working together–are virtuous and courageous heroes, motivated only by a desire to stop the exploitation of the workers.

image

Border Incident gives us two detective heroes–one Mexican (Ricardo Montalban) and one American (future senator George Murphy). Of the two, Montalban–a Mexican who was seldom cast as one in his Hollywood career–has the larger and more impressive role. Not that the casting measures up to 21st century enlightenment. Another major Mexican good guy, a farm worker who effectively becomes Montalban’s sidekick, is played by James Mitchell in swarthy makeup.

Leaving aside social and racial issues, Border Incident is a well-made thriller set mostly in rural areas. It provides suspense, entertaining if not realistic characters, a modicum of humor, and the most ridiculously unbelievable quicksand I have ever seen in a movie. (On the other hand, I have never seen quicksand outside of a movie.)

The 35mm print was just fine.

B+ In the Palm of Your Hand 
The perfect crime goes horribly wrong in this Mexican tale of wealth and greed. Arturo de Córdova stars as a fortune teller who uses detective skills to convince his clients of his magical powers. When he discovers that a beautiful widow murdered her husband–with the help of her handsome but not-too-bright lover–the clairvoyant sees the chance to augment his income with some blackmail. But the widow (Leticia Palma) has other plans, and a talent for getting what she wants out of men.

image

In the Palm of Your Hand becomes a story of a good man tempted into evil, with disastrous results. Palma creates the first of two great femme fatales I encountered on Saturday. And the flat tire sequences is a masterpiece of suspense.

This film has never been released in the USA, and the 35mm print lacked English subtitles. Noir City used the Castro’s digital projector to display newly-translated subtitles live over the film image. That worked fine for the most part, but occasionally got out of sync.

B+ Victims of Sin 
The best flick in the triple bill was also the weirdest, and could reasonably be described as a noir musical. Actually, it’s a strange hybrid now called a cabaretera film, that combines melodrama with music. Like the earliest Hollywood musicals, they’re generally set in the world of live entertainment, allowing for realistically-motivated song and dance sequences.

image

Victims of Sin sports a silly plot, ridiculous characters, and entertaining musical numbers. But what sets it above all that is the films’ star, a force of nature named Ninón Sevilla. A blonde firebrand and magnificent dancer with the energy of a firecracker, she lights up the screen every time she steps into the frame. Whether she’s dancing with a drummer in a cabaret or jumping through a window guns ablazing, she holds the screen like few others.

The Festival screened the only English-subtitled print of Victims of Sin. Aside from some difficult-to-read subtitles, I have no complaints.

The Evening Show

A Too Late For Tears 
Lizabeth Scott created the other great femme fatal of the day as a housewife willing to do anything to hold onto an illegal fortune. When a stranger tosses a satchel of cash into the family car, her husband wants to do the right thing and report the incident to the police. But that poor man is no match for his scheming wife. Neither is the crook whose car the satchel was supposed to be tossed into.

image

This is noir at its most entertaining. That paragon of mid-century American virtue, the housewife, proves herself smarter and meaner than everyone else as she sinks into depravity and murder (the professional crook is downright decent by comparison). Filled with tricky plot twists, witty dialog, and almost no production values, it provides a chance to both root for a dangerous killer and cheer at her ultimate downfall.

The Film Noir Foundation recently restored Too Late For Tears. Before the screening, Eddie Muller explained the problems finding decent source materials for the restoration. At one point they almost acquired an original nitrate print, but the trail went cold when the print’s owner suddenly died (which sounds like a noir plot). The 35mm restoration print (the FNF lacked the funds to restore it digitally) proved uneven in image quality. But it was never so bad as to compromise the pleasure of watching this excellent  movie.

A The Hitch-Hiker
Directed and co-written by Ida Lupino, the only woman director of the Hollywood studio era, The Hitch-Hiker is a quick, efficient thriller that runs only 71 minutes. The story is simple, suspenseful, and based on a true story. Two men on a fishing vacation pick up a hitchhiker, who turns out to be a psychotic killer wanted by the police. Holding them at gunpoint, he forces his prisoners to drive into Baja California, where he hopes to cover his tracks and be safe forever. They know quite well that he only intends to keep them alive until he no longer needs them.

image

This three-person tale is taut and suspenseful throughout. William Talman doesn’t bring nuance to the killer, but he brings a menace that could curdle water. I suspect that a generation swore off giving lifts to hitchhikers after seeing this movie.

The Library of Congress recently restored The Hitch-Hiker, and Noir City screened a beautiful new print. (And no, the picture above is not from the restoration.)

MGM 90th Anniversary…without MGM

I received an interesting press release today. Here’s how it started:

Los Angeles, CA (January 22, 2014) – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) announced today a yearlong global campaign to honor the studio’s storied 90-year legacy. Founded in 1924 when theater magnate Marcus Loew bought and merged Metro Pictures Corp. with Goldwyn Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Productions, MGM and its legendary roaring lion logo signify the golden era of Hollywood to film lovers around the world. Since its inception, the company has led the industry in creating some of Hollywood’s greatest stars and is home to over 175 Academy Award®-winning films, including 14 Best Pictures.

The release goes on to list ten wonderful MGM films that will be featured as part of this celebration. These include Fargo, Rain Man, The Pink Panther, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

MGM films you won’t find here include Singin’ in the Rain, The Thin Man, Ben-Hur (either version), The Big Parade, and North by Northwest. In fact, only one film mentioned here, Thelma and Louise, was an MGM movie when originally released. The others came from United Artists, Orion, or Polygram–studios whose libraries were acquired by MGM.

A bit of history:

Up until 1980, MGM owned all of its films and only its films. Hollywood’s leading studio in the 1930s and ’40s, by the ’70s it was a ghost of its former glory. Nevertheless, in 1981, it bought out another relic of old Hollywood, United Artists. UA came with three studio libraries: the complete RKO library (Citizen Kane, King Kong, Top Hat, etc.), the pre-1950 Warner library (Casablanca, The Jazz Singer, The Public Enemy, and so on), and the post-1950 United Artist catalog (West Side Story, Some Like it Hot, the James Bond franchise, and more). Just as home video became a major market, MGM held the biggest chunk of the American classic cinema pie.

Also with that purchase, MGM became MGM/UA. Whether a single movie opened with the MGM lion or the UA sparkle logo was a matter of marketing. Of the ten films listed in the press release, two came from the MGM/UA era; the aforementioned Thelma and Louise, and The Birdcage, officially a UA release.

In 1986, as part of a complicated deal in which MGM/UA changed hands multiple times, Ted Turner acquired the MGM, Warner and RKO libraries, but MGM/UA held onto the United Artists titles. The company has also acquired other, smaller libraries along the way, including Polygram and Orion.

And thus, MGM celebrates its 90th anniversary without access to the titles it should be celebrating. But then, many of the films they should celebrate are already part of the Best of Warner Brothers 50 Film Colleciton.

Duck Soup Revisited

I watched Duck Soup Sunday at the Pacific Film Archive. Great fun. I don’t remember when I saw it last on a big screen with a real audience. Certainly more than 20 years ago. That’s all very odd, because I just may have seen Duck Soup theatrically more often than any other movie.

I first saw it in a packed theater in LA’s Westwood district, on a Saturday night around 1970 or ’71. It was on a double bill with Horsefeathers, which I had already seen on TV. I fell in love with the Marx Brothers that night, and especially with Duck Soup.

image

Over the next twelve years or so, I rarely missed a chance to see my favorite Marx Brothers movie. And there were plenty of chances in those days. Revival movie theaters were doing great business, and the Marx Brothers were big money makers(one LA revival house extended a triple bill of some of their worst movies for several weeks). I could see Duck Soup two or three times a year.

But in the early 80s, parenthood reduced my movie-going habits considerably, and home video all but killed revival cinema. I think I took my son to see it theatrically when he was young, but I’m not sure (neither is he).

In the early days of DVD, I bought a box set containing Animal Crackers, Horsefeathers, and Duck Soup. These were bare-bones discs, with indifferent transfers and no extras. With the ability to see it at my leisure, I pretty much stopped watching Duck Soup. The magic, it seemed, had gone away.

Until Sunday. Watching this great comedy in a theater, with an enthusiastic audience, made it come back to life again. Over the years, I’d forgotten that even the name Rufus T. Firefly gets a laugh. And you barely notice that the mirror scene no sound at all when you’re surrounded by laughter.

The big screen also helps Duck Soup. The movie is filled with mock pageantry, from Groucho’s belated entrance to the "His Excellency’s car!" running gag to the patriotic production number "Freedonia’s Going to War" ("We got guns. They got guns. All God’s chillin got guns").

image

This really is one of the screen’s greatest comedies, and The Marx Brothers at their purest and most perfect. What makes so pure and perfect? Two reasons:

First, the Brothers were always at their best when up against the stuffy, respectable protectors of the status quo, and the richest strain of that gold can be found in the halls of government, where Duck Soup is set. Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) becomes absolute ruler of Freedonia, appointed by the wealthy elite (Margaret Dumont). (Harpo and Chico play spies for a rival nation, and Zeppo plays Groucho’s personal secretary.) Groucho encourages graft, refuses to take anything seriously, shortens workers’ lunch hour, and starts a war on a whim. And this film was made before George W. Bush was born. image

Second, it’s the Marx Brothers stripped down to the bare essentials. It lacks a romantic subplot. Screenwriters Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby keep unfunny exposition to the barest minimum. The movie even lacks the usual piano and harp solos. There’s very little here that doesn’t provoke laughter.

Duck Soup is the only Marx Brothers movie helmed by a well-respected comedy director, Leo McCarey. McCarey started his directing career in Laurel and Hardy silents, and it shows. Harpo has always had a knack for pulling odd props out of his coat, but only in Duck Soup does one portable prop–a pair of scissors–become a running gag. And the peanuts vs. lemonade war, with Harpo and Chico making life difficult for slow-burn master Edgar Kennedy, allows those two Brothers to delve into an entirely different kind of comedy without ever losing character.

Having only seen it on DVD for many years, I was beginning to think that Duck Soup might not be the great motion picture I remembered from my youth. Now I know that it’s one of those amazing miracles that the Hollywood system occasionally produces.

German Expressionism on a Hollywood Budget: My Blu-ray review of Sunrise

A marriage sinks as low as it can go, then rises again to the joys of marital bliss in F. W. Murnau’s first American film, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. The story is as simple and as simplistic as a story can get, yet the beautiful, expressionistic telling of that story turns it into a magnificent work of art.

In the 1920s, German expressionism appeared to be cinema at its most artistic. Rejecting naturalism, the expressionists used outsized acting styles against bizarre sets showing exaggerated forced perspective. Their films were no more real than Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, and at their best were just as emotionally effective.

Murnau was one of expressionism’s leaders. Among his German hits were The Last Laugh and the strangest adaptation of Dracula, Nosferatu (see my Blu-ray review). But Hollywood has always tempted other country’s successful filmmakers, and Murnau leaped at the temptation. And why shouldn’t he? Studio head William Fox (whose name now adorns 20th Century Fox and, so help us, Fox News) offered him a huge budget and considerable freedom. He used it to make the greatest of all German expressionist features; and he did it in southern California with Hollywood stars.

Those stars were George imageO’Brien and Janet Gaynor, playing a young married peasant couple in a quaint, lakeside village. A temptress from the city seduces the husband (no one has a name in this film), and talks him into murdering his wife. He backs down at the last minute, and the story takes the couple to a large city, where they find redemption, forgiveness, love, and joy. A good quarter of the movie simply watches two people in love enjoying a outing together–a risky approach for narrative cinema, but one that works perfectly here. Potential disaster will greet them on the trip home.

I told you the story is simple.

Murnau and screenwriter Carl Mayer (another German) treat the city as a place of temptation and redemption. In the first act, the evil Woman from the City injects adultery and violence into a a happy, rural marriage. But in the second act, the unnamed city–almost an alien landscape to our protagonists–provides an environment where the two heal their wounds and rediscover their love. And after that, they have a great afternoon and evening enjoying urban pleasures.Murnau shot all of the city sequences, and much of the countryside as well, on the Fox back lot. He didn’t want the realism of downtown Los Angeles, but a perfect dream city.

image

Make that a perfect European dream city. Although an early title tells the audience that the story "is of no place and every place," everything from the cottages in the village to the café in the city are designed to look European.

One can’t talk about Sunrise without acknowledging the groundbreaking, still breathtaking photography by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss. They turn a studio set into not just a moonlit marsh, but a beautiful, erotic moonlit marsh of the imagination. Their choice of lenses made the city set seem exciting and immense. They turned artificial weather into a chorus of angels and a wrath of the gods. And they highlighted brilliant, even if not realistic, performances by the two stars. Rosher and Struss deservedly won Oscars for their cinematography–Aa the very first Oscars ceremony.

image

Sunrise is a silent film in all but the most technical sense. It tells its story visually and with intertitles–and not many of those. But it was originally released–at least in some of the best theaters–with a recorded music and effects soundtrack. It is, I believe, only the second sound feature film released by a studio other than Warner Brothers.

American and European versions

This disc contains two separate versions of Sunrise, officially listed as the Movietone and European versions (Movietone was Fox’s sound technology). Back in silent days, filmmakers usually made multiple original camera negatives for a movie. For long shots, they’d have several cameras lined up side by side. For more intimate setups, which required more exact framing, they made sure to have more than one usable take.

The European version of Sunrise–or at least the European version on this disc–runs about 15 minutes shorter than the American Movietone one. Why? I don’t know and nothing on the disc explains it. I noticed one missing sequence–a cad hitting on the wife in a barbershop–and several missing shots. Jump cuts and mismatched cuts suggest some crude cutting. Perhaps this transfer was sourced from a print that had been cut for some long-forgotten reason.

Unfortunately, amongst all of the extras on this disc, there’s very little about the two versions. It’s too bad that Fox didn’t include a short documentary explaining how they came to be and highlighting the more interesting differences.

Fox didn’t even see fit to tell us what language the intertitles are in (Eric Heath Prendergast of the UC Berkeley Linguistics Department informed me that it’s Czech). These intertitles, by the way, use the broad, hand-painted, and very unique visual style of the English originals–it’s nice to know that someone in Prague cared enough to do that. These intertitles are subtitled back into English on the disc.

First Impression

imageSunrise comes in a standard Blu-ray case. Open it, and you’ll find both a Blu-ray and a DVD. The DVD is two-sided, with the Movietone version on one side and the European one on the other.

I only looked at the Blu-ray, which had both versions on the same side .

After a brief 20th Century-Fox fanfare, and some time loading, the disk takes you immediately to the main menu. Actually, it only takes you there the first time you play it. After that, you’ll get a choice of returning to where you left off, or going back to the main menu. That automatic bookmarking is a nice touch that you rarely find outside of Criterion Blu-rays.

How It Looks

Sunrise stands amongst the greatest works of cinematography. But the original negatives are lost, and image quality can only be as good as the worn and multi-generational prints available.

Movietone version: When Hollywood started putting soundtracks on film, the picture had to become narrower. So Fox properly pillarboxed Sunrise to a very narrow 1.20×1.

Some scenes are significantly scratched, but not too many. As a whole, the image quality is good for a film this old, but not exceptional. There’s a slight fuzziness to the image, as if the film source was too many generations away from the original negative (which is probably the case).

image

European
version: Wow! I wish the Movietone version looked this good. This is as sharp and detailed as the best silent Blu-rays I’ve seen. If it was complete, I’d definitely prefer this version.

Unlike the Movietone edition, this is a truly silent film, originally shown in theaters with live music, it’s therefore pillarboxed to the more conventional 1.33×1 aspect ratio.

Having watched these two versions on consecutive nights, I wish someone would take both and create the most perfect Sunrise out of them.

How It Sounds

Movietone version: Fox gives you a choice of two musical scores here. The default, of course, is Hugo Riesenfeld’s original score and recording from 1927. It’s haunting and beautiful, and is presented here in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio mono. This is probably the best it ever sounded.

The second track is a much more recent score by Timothy Brock, recorded by the Olympia Chamber Orchestra. I loved this score, too; I’d have a hard time choosing between them. This one is in two-track stereo, and oddly, presented only in lossy Dolby Digital.

European version: No choices here. You just get the Movietone soundtrack, edited to match the shorter length. Once again, it’s mono DTS Master Audio.

And the Extras

I’ve already complained about the extra that isn’t here–a documentary on the two versions. But there are plenty of others to fill in your knowledge of the film.

  • Commentary by cinematographer John Bailey. Not surprisingly, he talks a lot about the camerawork, but he also covers other aspects of the film. Very interesting.
  • Outtakes with commentary by John Bailey. 10 minutes. Some interesting stuff, here, although I get the feeling that Bailey wasn’t always sure what he’s showing you.
  • Outtakes with Text Cards: 9 minutes. These are for the most part–but not entirely–the same outtakes. Only this time, with introductory intertitles instead of vocal narration.

  • Original Scenario by Carl Mayer with Annotations by F.W. Murnaw. You step through this one page at a time, either automatically (every 5 seconds) or manually. I didn’t get too far. I’d rather they made this available in a PDF. One interesting discovery: On paper, the characters had names.
  • Sunrise screenplay: Same idea. Same problem.
  • Restoration notes: Once again, static pages of text. However, with only nine such pages, this one is readable and interesting.
  • Theatrical trailer

A Little Bit of Trivia

The front cover claims that Sunrise won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Yet most film historians will tell you that at the first Oscar ceremony, honoring the films of 1927 and ’28, Wings won Best Picture.

In reality, there was no award called "Best Picture" at that time. Wings won Outstanding Picture, and Sunrise won Unique and Artistic Production. In other words, they had one award for the big Hollywood blockbuster, and another for the work of art.

Kurosawa Says Noh to Shakespeare: My Blu-ray review of Throne of Blood

Akira Kurosawa went out on a limb when he made his loose Macbeth adaptation, Throne of Blood. Highly stylized and heavily influenced by Japan’s noh theater, the picture holds you emotionally at an arm’s length. You’re never invited to identify with or even empathize with the characters. This is Kurosawa at his coldest, as if Stanley Kubrick had crawled into his soul.

And yet, it’s also Kurosawa at his most atmospheric, and–at least amongst his black-and-white films–his most visually exciting. It creates a sense of doom and destiny, and of the inevitability of evil, that is hard to shake after the fade-out. As you watch Toshiro Mifune’s Macbeth character step deeper into regicide, murder, paranoia, and hopelessness, you understand that everything that happens to him is pre-ordained. And yet the film’s clearly-spelled-out message, that violence begets violence, comes out strong and clear.

image

If you’ve ever fallen in love with Shakespeare, you know the basic story. Egged on by his evil and ambitious wife, a nobleman and great warrior murders his king (or great lord in this version), and takes the throne as his own. But one murder is never enough. And the more he kills, the more enemies rise up against him.

Macbeth hardly counts as naturalistic theater. The supernatural plays a heavy role, and  the bulk of the dialog is not prose but poetry. When Lady Macbeth talks in her sleep, she does so in iambic pentameter.

So it’s befitting that in adapting Macbeth, Kurosawa selected a Noh-like approach every bit as stylized as Shakespeare’s technique, and far more Japanese.image Also far more cinematic. Noh traditions allowed Kurosawa to use exaggerated makeup and strange, ritualized movements–especially with Isuzu Yamada as Mifune’s evil wife. Thick fog covers much of the landscape, and one particular forest seems downright evil. (If you know Macbeth, you know where this forest is going.) Even animals get into the act, helping to warn the thick-headed humans of the horrors to come.

But Kurosawa’s Noh can’t capture the complexities of human nature so beautifully displayed in Shakespeare’s poetry–and in much of Kurosawa’s best work. For that reason, I can’t quite put Throne of Blood amongst his very best work. But second-tier Kurosawa is still compelling filmmaking..

Throne of Blood contains some amazing sequences, including one of cinema’s greatest endings. I won’t spoil it, but I will tell you that Kurosawa departs greatly from Shakespeare’s original climax. In Shakespeare’s time, before the American, French, and Russian Revolutions, Kurosawa’s ending was probably unimaginable.

For more on the subject, see Kurosawa Diary, Part 12: Throne of Blood.

First Impression

Like so many Criterion titles, Throne of Blood comes in a clear, plastic case with an illustrated cover. Inside you’ll find two discs, a Blu-ray and a DVD–one set on top of the other. The movie and the complete extras are on both discs.

When you insert the Blu-ray for the first time, the main menu comes up almost immediately. After that, inserting the disc will offer you options of going to that menu or returning to where you left off.

In addition to the discs, the case contains a 24-page booklet with an article by Stephen Prince called "Shakespeare Transposed." Also here you’ll find essays on subtitle translation by Linda Hoaglund and the late, great Donald Richie. More on subtitling below.

How It Looks

If I wanted to show off what Blu-ray can do with a black-and-white, narrow-screen film, I’d use this disc. In a film filled with grotesque images, thick fog, pouring rain, terrified horses, angry birds, and deadly arrows, everything is highly-detailed and cinematic. The grain is there but not distracting. The gray tones are magnificent.

Just one complaint: A couple of bright daylight exterior long shots looked a bit washed out. I don’t think they totaled more than 15 seconds of screen time, and I’m not entirely sure they’re errors. Kurosawa loved extreme weather,  and more so here than in any other film. If you’re going to film thick fog and torrential rain, why not burning-hot sunlight?

image

How It Sounds

As is Criterion’s standard procedure for mono films on Blu-ray, Throne of Blood reproduces the original soundtrack in a mono 2.0 uncompressed PCM. It sounded great, and is probably very close to what Kurosawa heard before okaying the mix.

And the Extras

All of these were also on the 2003 DVD release.

  • Choice of subtitles: Criterion includes two sets of English subtitles, each with a different translation. That’s a great idea, and it reminds us that if we don’t understand a film’s original language, we are always missing something. Before watching the entire film, I tried two scenes with each translation, and settled for Linda Hoaglund’s over Donald Richie’s. Her language was slightly archaic–although in no way Shakespearean. For instance, where Richie translates an exchange as "Was there a hut here before?"->"No, not that I know of," Hoaglund uses "Do you recall such a hovel?"->"No, the sight is new to my eyes."
  • Commentary by Michael Jeck: At first, I found Jeck’s voice irritating, as if he was trying too hard to be interesting. But I soon got used to it. The talk is educational, informative, and entertaining.
  • Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create: 23 minutes. Every Criterion Kurosawa disc contains the appropriate section from this Japanese TV documentary series. This is one of the best, concentrating primarily on Noh Theater and how it influenced this film. It also has Kurosawa talking about the time he met his idle, John Ford.
  • original Japanese trailer

Throne of Blood goes on sale January 7.

image

Finishing up the PFA’s 4K Series

Within the space of 48 hours, I attended the last three screenings at the Pacific Film Archive‘s series The Resolution Starts Now: 4K Restorations from Sony Pictures.

With these screenings, there was no Grover Crisp to discuss the technology and how it effects the art. Aside from very brief introductions from the PFA’s Steve Seid, they just showed movies.

Obsession

I had never before seen Brian De Palma’s 1976 ode to Alfred Hitchcock. And while I kind of, sort of enjoyed the movie, I can’t say that not having seen it before was a great loss. Cliff Robertson plays a wealthy real estate developer who loses his wife and daughter through a kidnapping and an astonishingly stupid bit of police work. Then, 16 years later, he meets a woman who looks exactly like his wife (both played by Geneviève Bujold) and before you can say Vertigo, you have a pretty good idea that things aren’t what they seem. Just some advice: If your best friend is played by John Lithgow and has a thick southern accent, don’t trust him.

image

Actually, the worst thing about this movie was the way over-the-top musical score. That’s really sad, because it was Bernard Hermann’s last score. I don’t know whether Hermann was played out (his penultimate score, Taxi Driver, is brilliant), or whether the problem was in the mix (which I believe was done after Hermann’s death). If the music hadn’t been so loud, it probably would have been less annoying.

Which brings up another issue about the digital restoration. Like most films of its time, Obsession was originally released in mono (that would change in a couple of years), but the soundtrack was recorded in stereo. Sony gave it what I suspect was a 5.1 mix, although I didn’t notice any surrounds. The music was definitely in stereo, and that may have added to the overwhelming, melodramatic, pompous effect of that score.

I do wish that the studios would respect original, mono scores more.

But the picture looked great, even if it was only a 2K restoration. It was photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond, who was to 1970s Panavision what Jack Cardiff was to 1940s Technicolor. Among the titles he shot through Panavision’s anamorphic lenses: McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Scarecrow, Sugarland Express, and Heaven’s Gate. I don’t know how Zsigmond feels about this restoration, but he should be proud of it.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

I don’t remember when I last saw Stanley Kubrick’s nightmare comedy in a theater. It’s been at least 30 years. (I rented the Blu-ray about a year ago.) For a movie so relentlessly tied to the cold war concerns of the 1960s, it hasn’t lost its sting. Even the paranoid speech about fluoridated water got the intended laughs, despite an audience that largely didn’t remember the right-wing ravings on that subject.

Two particular observations:

Peter Seller’s telephone monolog, talking to an unseen and unheard Soviet Premier, is one of cinema’s great comedy sequences. Kudos to writer Terry Southern for writing the brilliantly believable yet hilarious dialog (I suspect it was part of Southern’s contribution to the script), and to Sellers for his perfect delivery.

image

The scenes in the airplane are played very much like a conventional comic thriller. This tricks the audience into rooting for these determined American heroes, even when we know that they’re about to destroy the world.

The 4K DCP looked great, catching the full grayscale of Gilbert Taylor’s black and white photography. The film’s grain structure is thoroughly in evidence, and gets thicker in the 16mm battle scenes.

Fortunately, this time around, Sony respected the original mono mix.

On the Waterfront

In his introduction, Steve Seid explained why Picnic (which I didn’t get to last week) was only in 2K. It was scanned and restored strictly for a Blu-ray release. Sony created the DCP specifically for this series. This shows how easy it is, once a film is properly digitized, to make it available theatrically.

Makes me wonder why I ever had to sit through a theatrical Blu-ray presentation.

Now, onto the main attraction.

Before Sunday, I hadn’t seen On the Waterfront in a very long time. And frankly, it wasn’t as good as I remembered it.

Yes, the acting is phenomenal, and not just with Brando. The picture works as a showcase for all the great method actors moving from New York to Hollywood in the early 50s.

image

But they didn’t have to leave New York for this one. The location work joyfully thumbs its nose at every backlot New York St. set and rear-projection stage in Southern California. Here, the actors talk in the real location.

The big problem, of course, is the historical context. Both writer Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan were ex-Communists who saved their careers by naming names and thus destroying other people’s  careers during the time of the blacklist. In other words, they became stool pigeons in an act of cowardice. Then they made a movie about how courageous and upright it is to be a stool pigeon.

But the film has other problems. If you haven’t seen the film and are adverse to spoilers, skip the next paragraph.

Brando’s character eventually realizes that he must testify against the evil, corrupt union officials. But that means testifying against his own brother. It’s family loyalty vs. loyalty to society as a whole. Then, rather conveniently, the other bad guys murder his brother. No more moral dilemma. Convenient.

Okay. Those avoiding the spoiler can read from here down.

The 4K restoration looked fantastic. The black and white movie looks very grainy, but it always has. The audio didn’t try to be more than a 1954 mono soundtrack.

Made during Hollywood’s widescreen revolution, On the Waterfront was shot to look good at 1.33×1, 1.85×1, and anything in between. The DCP uses 1.66×1, and I think that was the best choice. On the Criterion Blu-ray, which I haven’t seen, it’s available in all three ratios. Here’s an explanation.

By the way, Sunday was the PFA’s last day of screening before closing for its winter break. They’ll start showing movies there again on January 16. Upcoming series include one on Godard, and a mammoth series on American comedy.

A Century Ago: The Films of 1913

Thursday night, I drove to the Rafael to see A Century Ago: The Films of 1913. This is the latest edition of an annual event–one that was just becoming possible a scant decade ago. And, in its current form, it won’t be possible for much longer. In 1910, people still went to movies primarily to see a selection of one-reelers (ten to 15 minutes depending on the projection speed). By 1920, these shorts were a minor addition to the main attraction–the feature film.

Every year, the Motion Picture Academy puts together the show, screens it at their Los Angeles theater, then flies it up to San Rafael for the second and last screening. Academy executive Randy Haberkamp hosted the program, introducing each film. Michael Mortilla supplied musical accompaniment on piano.

But the best performance came from the projectionist, Joe Rinaudo, working with his hand-cranked 1909 Powers Model 6 Cameragraph Motion Picture Machine. I got a chance to talk to Rinaudo, looking sharp in his top hat and tails, before the show. The Model 6 was designed to be portable, for travelling showmen who didn’t know if their next gig would be in a vaudeville theater, a church, or a barn. He proudly showed me how he had altered the lamp to provide a better light than was possible in 1913. In those days, the lamp was so hot, and the film so flammable, that safety required a thick glass between them. It saved lives, but produced a less-than-ideal image.

I took several photos of Rinaudo and the Model 6, but the camera in my phone couldn’t handle the low light level. So I snatched this photo from the Academy Web site. If someone objects, I’ll remove it.

image

Rinardo set up his projector in front of the regular projection booth, with no soundproof wall between the machinery and the audience. The steady, clickety-clack sound behind us, mixed with Mortilla’s music in front and to the side, helped bring us back a century. I’ve been seeing a lot of digital projection lately, and I love it, but this was something very special that went to the heart of cinema.

With one very old projector and seven rare archival one-reel prints, there was no way to do a continuous movie show. But that’s okay. Few places could do that in 1913, either. While Rinaudo changed reels and displayed slides, Haberkamp introduced the next movie.

Some quick notes about the shorts:

Barney Oldfield’s Race For a Life
This Keystone comedy is the only film on the program I’d already seen; it’s part of the Slapstick Encyclopedia collection of silent comedy shorts. On DVD, Ford Sterling’s outrageously overdone villain was annoying. With an audience, he was successfully funny. The title character was a real-life, famous race driver at the time. Starring the always adorable Mabel Normand.

Barney Oldfield's Race For a Life

The Evidence of the Film
Argo wasn’t the first movie to highly praise its own industry. Here, a sweet, innocent young boy is accused of theft and sent away. Luckily, the real crime was accidentally recorded by a film company. This picture gives us a glimpse into early post-production editing facilities.

The Evidence of the Film

A Lady and Her Maid
This very entertaining comedy shows two homely women visiting a beauty parlor, then spurning the men who rejected them. Future star Norma Talmadge plays the younger one. A lot of fun. Although this is an American film, this print from the Netherlands had Dutch intertitles; Haberkamp read the English version out loud.

Arabia Takes the Health Cure
A decade before Rin Tin Tin, Selig tried to turn a horse into a movie star. Everything you need to know about this venture is summed up in the fact that the company gave up after only three shorts. "Health Cure" is the only surviving film starring the equine Arabia . If the other two are of similar quality, their loss is no great one.

The Making of Broncho Billy
Cowboy star Broncho Billy (real name: Max Aronson) has long been a Bay Area favorite, largely because he did so much work here. He made several Broncho Billy shorts before giving his character this origin story. Like all Broncho Billy shorts, it’s fun.

The Lady and the Mouse
The night wouldn’t be complete without something by D.W. Griffith. This warm tale of a struggling rural family, two sisters–one sick and one well–and true love was sweet and fun. It’s also a fine example of Lillian Gish inventing the art of motion picture acting.

Suspense
I don’t know if Lois Weber really was America’s first woman film director. But judging from this little thriller, she already understood how to scare audiences long before Alfred Hitchcock stepped into a studio. And in 1913, Weber used technical innovations that would seem experimental and daring today (and they were harder to do back then). My favorite of the group.

Suspense

I suspect that all of these movies are available on Youtube. After all, they’re all in the public domain. But Youtube can’t provide the enthusiastic audience, live music, or the clattering of the projector behind you.

After "Suspense," projectionist Rinaudo got to rest his arm as the program switched to modern technology–the Rafael’s digital projector. Acknowledging the move to features that had already begun in 1913, Haberkamp showed us a selection of clips from other 1913 titles, some of them feature length. Among the highlights were scenes from Atlantis, a fiction based on the then recent Titanic disaster, an Nursery Favorites, an early talkie experiment from Edison.

Altogether, a wonderful evening.

DCP, Grover Crisp, & Bonjour Tristesse at the PFA

Thursday night I attended the second event in the Pacific Film Archive series, The Resolution Starts Now: 4K Restorations from Sony Pictures. This was more than just a movie screening. It was a talk by Sony’s head archivist–and one of the current heroes of film restoration–Grover Crisp. Then came the movie: Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse.

Ironically, the movie was only in 2K.

But the evening started with true 4K projection: the newly-restored trailer of Lawrence of Arabia. I don’t think I’d ever seen a trailer at the PFA before, and certainly not one for a film that they’d screened earlier that week. Anyway, it looked gorgeous.

Then the PFA’s Steve Seid came to the podium to introduce Crisp. He admitted that the change to digital isn’t "the most comfortable conversion for some people. Both sides have their pros and cons. we’re hoping that this series will address this." He praised Sony in general and Crisp in particular for the way they handle the large Columbia Pictures library, preserving and restoring obscure films as well as famous ones. This was the case before digital, and remains so, both for 35mm and DCP.

Crisp’s talk was similar to the one he gave at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival last year, but longer and more detailed. He used a Windows 7 computer (presumably a Sony laptop), plugged into the projection system, to illustrate his points.

Some of the more interesting points from his talk:

  • Sony has "pretty much" stopped restoring films on film. It’s all digital. But they still output the final results, and still make 35mm black and white separations  to better preserve color films.
  • In the pre-digital days, the "original negative was the holy grail." If it was damaged, they had to find something else. "The goal was to replace damaged sections." But there was a trade-off in image quality. With "every step away from original negative, you lose image quality."
  • "Now we scan the original negative." They still look for other elements if a section is missing, but a damaged negative can be fixed digitally.
  • Most new movies you see in theaters are 2K DCPs.
  • "We scan all of our film at 4K now." Sony also has a strong motive for restoring old films in 4K. They’re now selling 4K HDTVs, and need content.
  • Early in the Lawrence restoration, they did test scans at different resolutions. In the end, they "scanned in 8K, and did all the work in 4K." They needed 8K because Lawrence is a large-format film.
  • Crisp talked about how digital technology can restore a film to a closure approximation of how it originally looked. As one example, he used Picnic, which will screen Sunday. An early Cinemascope picture, it was shot in the now-dead 2.55×1 aspect ratio. Modern prints crop it to the later ‘scope ratio of 2.35×1. "All the prints were compromised." With digital, they were able to letterbox the image and retain the original aspect ratio.
  • When restoring a film digitally, Crisp strongly believes in retaining the grain, which he called "the building block of the image; try to take it away and you’re messing with the image."
  • Someone asked about long-time archiving of digital films. He said that Sony has an archival system set up, and they haven’t lost anything in 12 years.

Crisp ended the presentation with the same side-by-side digital vs. 35mm Dr. Strangelove comparison he showed last year. And yes, the digital looked better (although they both looked excellent). Strangelove was Sony’s first 4K restoration.

And what about the night’s movie?

I’m not a big fan of Preminger, although I like some of his work. I hadn’t even heard of Bonjour Tristesse before I saw the current schedule.

At first, I wasn’t impressed, but as the movie played out, it pulled me in. Jean Seberg plays a teenager with a close relationship to her wealthy, widowed, fun-loving playboy father. They’re spending a carefree summer on the Mediterranean–just father, daughter, and father’s sweet but lower-class lover. Then Dad (David Niven) falls for a much more prim and proper woman (Deborah Kerr), and trouble begins.

image

This sounds like a comedy, and the film has its laughs, but the film goes into some very serious directions. And it tips you off early that it will go there. The story is told in flashback from a dreary, black-and-white Paris; the summer scenes are shot in very bright colors.

I came away impressed. I’d give it a B+.

How Many Films are Still Shot on Film: The 2013 Edition

For the second year in a row, I’ve done a survey of current films to determine how many are digitally shot and how many are still captured on film. In 2012, I was surprised to discover that just over half of the films that might have been shot on film (I explain that distinction below) were shot digitally. This time, three fifths of the titles were captured as pixels rather than grain.

I generally prefer a Digital Cinema Package (DCP) to 35mm film in the projection booth (there are exceptions). But I’m nowhere near as enamored with the look of digital in the camera. No matter what the projection technology, an image captured in the photochemical realm has a depth and warmth that digital cameras still can’t get quite right.

But they’re close and getting closer. For my mind, the additional cost of shooting on film only makes sense if you want beautiful photography. Not every film needs beautiful photography. So it’s not surprising that most films made today are shot digitally.

And please, don’t tell me it’s not a film unless it’s shot on film. Or, if you do tell me that, swear that you will never claim to dial a phone number.

On with the survey:

To find out how many theatrical features are now shot digitally, I visited IMBD’s Showtimes and Tickets page. Since my goal was to find out about new movies, I disqualified any film released in a year other than 2013. For obvious reasons, I also skipped titles with an incomplete Technical Specs page.

I separated everything else into two categories:

Docs, Moc Docs, Animation, & 3D: It’s pretty much unthinkable these days to shoot a documentary, a fake documentary (AKA, a mockumentary), or an animated picture on film. And although a lot of 3D movies were shot on film 60 years ago, it’s considered impossible today.

I found six films in this category–or perhaps I should say in these four categories. As I expected, all were shot digitally.

Everything Else: If you’re shooting live actors in 2D, and aren’t trying to make your movie look like a documentary, shooting on film is still a practical option. These I expected to find movies in this category shot both ways.

And I found them–ten live-action 2D non-docs were shot on real film. On the other hand, I also found 15 such movies shot digitally. That’s half again as much as were shot on film.

Shooting on film is on the way of becoming something special, like three-strip Technicolor in the 1940s, or Super Panavision 70 in the 1960s. Those formats eventually went away, replaced by more practical, less expensive technologies.

On the other hand, digital cameras will eventually outpace film in image quality, so we won’t be losing anything in the long run.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 59 other followers