Magician: The life and times of Citizen Welles

B+ Documentary

  • Directed by Chuck Workman

Every cinephile has to contemplate the strange phenomenon named Orson Welles. He had conquered radio and the New York stage, and had signed a Hollywood movie contract that turned established directors green with envy, before he turned 25. His first film, Citizen Kane, has been called the "greatest film ever made" more often than any other contender.

And yet he spent most of his life a failure. He continually scrambled to raise money to make his films, few of which made any money back. With the exception of a handful of Hollywood projects (Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil), much of his work is fractured and problematic–both loved and despised by the type of audiences most likely to appreciate his work.

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Chuck Workman’s documentary covers that life in chronological order, from his 1915 birth to his death from a heart attack in 1985. In between, it follows his early recognition as a theatrical wunderkind, the highpoint of his career with Kane, and his parallel careers as a successful actor and a struggling auteur.

Workman wisely avoids the usual voice-of-god narration. In its place he presents interviews–both archival and original–with friends, co-workers, admirers, lovers, and, of course, Welles, himself. That exposes us to different points of view. In one sequence, Workman cuts between two interviews where Welles tells different versions of how The Lady from Shanghai got made. When interviews can’t provide the needed information, Workman provides written text on screen.

But the picture is hardly objective. Among the many people interviewed–including Steven Spielberg, Richard Linklater, Oja Kodar (Welles’ companion for the last two decades of his life), and Peter Bogdanovich–you won’t find David Thomson, author of Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles. Thomson’s biography paints a far less positive picture of Welles than Workman’s.

Orson Welles was one of cinema’s greats, and it’s tragic how often the money men took over and recut his films. But I’ve read enough about Welles to understand that his own emotional immaturity was a major part of the problem. Judging from this documentary, you would think that evil studio executives were the only cause.

Magician suffers from a biased look at its subject. But it’s still an informative and entertaining look at a very entertaining (although not very informative) artist. If you love Welles’ work, you’ll enjoy Magician. If you haven’t seen his work, see the films first.

How Many Films are Still Shot on Film: The 2014/15 Edition

Very few motion pictures are shot on film anymore. Based on my casual survey of movies released in 2014 and (so far) 2015, only about 18% of all the pictures that could have been shot on film were shot digitally.

I did my first such survey back in November, 2012. That time around, film and digital came in at a dead heat. Discounting animated films, documentaries, fake documentaries, and anything shot in 3D, I counted 14 films shot digitally and 13 shot on film.

Why did I discount animated films, documentaries, fake documentaries, and anything shot in 3D? Because it’s pretty much unthinkable to shoot such pictures on film anymore. I only wanted to count pictures that could reasonably have been shot on film.

I did it again in December, 2013. The trend was definitely towards digital, but not overwhelmingly so. That time, I found ten movies shot on film, and 15 shot digitally.

I expected the trend to continue, but I didn’t expect physical film to drop off a cliff. Out of 33 films I surveyed, only six of them were shot through a photo-chemical process.

Here’s how I did it:

I started with IMDb’s Showtimes & Tickets page, which lists all of the movies currently showing. I clicked on each one, found the "full technical specs" page, and noted how it was shot. Because of the long wait since my last survey, I supplemented the list with other 2014 films that I’ve reviewed.

I disqualified various films for these reasons:

  • They were animated, 3D, documentaries, or mock-documentaries.
  • The listed year of release was prior to 2014
  • IMBd did not have sufficient technical information

Whether we like it or not, this trend is inevitable. Digital is cheaper, easier to work with, and probably better for the environment. Film in the camera still results in a better-looking image–even with digital projection–but the line between them is thin and getting thinner. For most movies, it doesn’t really make a difference.

I’m still deeply concerned about preservation and archiving with digital. Due to shrinking demand, the use of film for these purposes may become economically impossible.

A great many filmmakers will have to adjust. But John Ford adjusted to sound, talking, three-strip Technicolor, color film, magnetic audio recording, standard widescreen, Panavision, stereo sound, and three different large-size formats. Today’s directors can adjust, as well.

What’s Screening: March 6 – 12

In the festival scene, Cinequest continues through Sunday, and CAAMFest starts Thursday.

A+ The Crowd, California Theatre (San Jose), Friday, 7:30. 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 silent masterpieceimage. 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 can’t quite accept that he’s ordinary. Perhaps the best realistic drama of the silent era. This is not only a brilliant film, but a rarely-shown one, unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray. For more on The Crowd, read The American Dream turns into a nightmare, and a great American film needs to be seenWith Dennis James accompanying at the Wurlitzer organ. Part of Cinequest.

A Very long, Russian Revolution double bill: Doctor Zhivago & Reds, Castro, Sunday, 1:00. Talk about a long day at the movies! These two very different epics (each of which would earn an A on its own) have a combined runtime of over 6 1/2 imagehours. In Doctor Zhivago, David Lean paints a tale of a decent man torn between his wife and another woman, while the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war swirls around them. For more on the big-screen Zhivago experience, see Dr. Zhivago at the Cerrito. Warren Beatty’s Reds, on the other hand, follows the private lives of early American Communists–particularly journalist/activist John Reed (Beatty) and his lover Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton). They eventually get to Russia, where they find both romance and disaster.

A+ My Darling Clementine, Cerrito, Thursday. By all rules of the western genre, this John Ford masterpiece shouldn’t work. The plot, the primary motivations, and the action all but disappear for the imagewhole middle part of the movie. And yet it’s one of the greatest westerns ever made, providing a powerful sense of myth as it tells the (overwhelmingly fictional) story of  the shootout at the O.K. Corral against the backdrop of a stunningly photographed Monument Valley. This is history converted into legend. And yet, the characters seem down-to-earth, and can surprise you with their all-too-human frailties and contradictions. Read my Blu-ray review.

A- La Dolce Vita, Castro, Wednesday. Yes, this story of a gossip journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) living on the outskirts of the rich and decadent has many great moments. Consider the opening shot of Jesus flying through the air via helicopter, or  the imageclimactic out-of-control party. The famous fountain scene is absolutely stunning. And there’s the heart-wrenching moment when photographers surround a woman before she’s told that her husband and children are dead. The entire film makes brilliant use of the Cinemascope frame, with a punch line timed not by editing or performance, but by an expectation of when the audience will notice the right edge of the screen. But the story doesn’t really go anywhere, and there are long, dull areas in between the brilliance. I can’t quite call it a masterpiece. On a very strange double bill with Artists and Models, a Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis comedy from 1955.

A+ The Grapes of Wrath, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. No one associates serious social criticism with classic, studio-era  Hollywood. Yet this 20th Century-Fox production of JohnimageSteinbeck’s flip side of the California dream pulls few punches. As the desperately-poor Joad family moves from Oklahoma to California in their rickety truck, only to find poverty, bigotry, and exploitation, the picture shows us an America where mere survival is a victory and revolution a logical reaction. John Ford directed from producer Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay, but a lot of credit must go to studio head Darryl Zanuck for the courage to make a film that exposes the ugly underbelly of American capitalism.

A Sunset Boulevard, various CineMark theaters, Sunday (matinee only) and imageWednesday. Billy Wilder’s meditation on Hollywood’s  seedy underbelly is the flip side of Singin’ in the Rain (now that would make a great double bill). Norma Desmond is very much Lena Lamont after twenty-two years of denial and depression. And in the role of Norma, Gloria Swanson gives one of the great over-the-top performances in Hollywood history.

B+  2001: A Space Odyssey, Clay, Friday and Saturday, 11:55. I used to worship Stanley Kubrick’s visualization of Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination, but it hasn’t aged all that well. We’ve seen the actual year, and know that Clarke and Kubrick got 2001almost everything wrong. Although I’ve lost my love of Stanley Kubrick, there’s no denying the pull of 2001’s unorthodox storytelling and visual splendor–if you can see it properly presented. 2001 was shot for 70mm projection on a giant, curved, Cinerama screen–and you’re not going to get that experience at the Clay.

B L’avventura, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:10. Michelangelo Antonioni’s story of the young and amoral hardly counts as an adventure–although it almost starts as one.image A group of wealthy young adults yacht to a deserted island, where one of them mysteriously disappears. The others look for her, then give up and go about their meaningless lives. I hated L’avventura when I saw it in college. When I saw it again recently, I realized the point of how it played with my expectations. This is not about rescuing a friend or lover; but about the shallowness of modern relationships. Part of the series and university class, Film 50: History of Cinema.

B+ The Wizard of Oz, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving it a B+. Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion), The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else sees. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A.

A Timbuktu, Lark, Friday, 1:20; Thursday, 4:50. Abderrahmane Sissako’s remarkable film feels a bit like one of those Altman movies about intertwining lives. But these lives have been severely disrupted by Timbuktuan armed group of Muslim fundamentalists. Music, smoking, soccer, and women with bare hands are now forbidden. At first, even the occupiers act calm and friendly, and reluctant to enforce the new rules. But as the film progresses, the fanatics become less of a joke and more of a mortal threat. Timbuktu’s overall sense of tragedy and helplessness sneaks upon you slowly. I suspect that’s how it happens in real life. Read my full review.

A Wild, Castro, Monday. Judging from this adaptation of her memoirs, Cheryl Strayed led a pretty wild life before she walked into the real wild and got herself together. This film adaptation of Strayed’s memoir follows her as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail and learns how to be a fully in-the-moment adult human being. Interspersed with the hike, the film shows us flashbacks that reveal what sort of person she was before the difficult and dangerous three-month voyage. We learn about her struggling but loving mother who died too soon, and the self-destructive streak that destroyed Cheryl’s marriage. Read my full review. On a double bill with A Most Violent Year, which I haven’t seen.

B+ Whiplash, Castro,Tuesday; New Parkway, opens Saturday. Set in a fictitious music conservatory, Whiplash follows a young and ambitious jazz drummer (Miles Teller) as he is tortured and abused by a horrificallyimage cruel music teacher. The film’s key pleasure is watching veteran character actor J.K. Simmons, in the Oscar-winning role of a lifetime, as the most evil music teacher since The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. Other pleasures include the music (of course) and Teller’s way of making you root for the protagonist, even though he’s pretty much a dick. But the film is set in an almost all-male world (although I’ve been told since I first wrote about it that this is actually pretty accurate in jazz), and the teacher would realistically have been fired years ago.

B+ The Theory of Everything, New Parkway, opens Saturday. Like so many British pictures, this Stephen Hawking biopic provides a showcase for great acting. Hawking is the sort of character that cries out for an Oscar–he’s a real person, he’s British, and he has a disability. Eddie Redmayne makes full use of that opportunity, catching not only Hawking’s brilliance and his disability, but also his impish humor. I’m not quite ready to say this is the best performance of the year, but it’s certainly the most noticeable. Felicity Jones co-stars as his first wife and does an excellent job, Very well made but not exceptional. Read my longer comments.

A Hitchcock double bill: Psycho & The Birds, through Sunday. The A goes to Psycho, where Alfred Hitchcock leaves the audience unsure who we’re supposed to root for or what could constitute a imagehappy ending. Janet Leigh  and Anthony Perkins defined their careers in Hitchcock’s last masterpiece. But I can only give a B- to the film that followed it. The Birds has some great sequences. The scene where Tippi Hedren calmly sits and smokes while crows gather on playground equipment, and the following attack on the children, are classics. But the story is weak, the ending unsatisfactory, and new-comer Hedren–while beautiful–is utterly lacking in acting talent or charisma.

Last Man on Earth

I wrote this review in 2012, expecting that the film would eventually be released theatrically. It never happened, I’m publishing the review now. To my knowledge, this Italian film isn’t available with English subtitles.

B Science fiction drama comedy

  • Written and directed by Gian Alfonso Pacinotti
  • From a graphic novel by Giacomo Monti

The first two scenes lead you to believe that you’re about to watch a droll and very funny dark comedy. First, as the opening credits roll, we listen to a radio talk show where people worry about how the coming aliens will affect the Catholic Church or a local soccer team. Then we watch a very shy, awkward, deeply repressed man visit an aging prostitute in what appears to be a furniture store. Since he’s only a waiter, he’s not allowed to use a bed designated for more successful professionals.

For the first half of this unclassifiable Italian feature, the aliens are just background noise. Everyone knows that they’re here, but no one seems to know anything about them. Charlatans are making fortunes spinning their absurd tales about the new visitors. But the film is far more concerned with Luca (Gabriele Spinelli), the repressed waiter.

Luca is an emotional mess. A loner with only one friend (a transvestite prostitute), he LastManonEarthcan barely talk to his co-workers. He spies on an attractive female neighbor, and is utterly revolted when she passionately kisses her boyfriend. He occasionally visits his father, who lives by himself on a small, nearby farm.

After awhile, the aliens start appearing. And they look exactly like the most clichéd aliens imaginable. Worse, they look like people wearing badly-made alien suits. I don’t know if this was a creative decision or the result of a too-low budget.

The first alien, clearly a female, turns up at Luca’s father’s farm, and becomes a chauvinist’s idea of the perfect wife–keeping a clean home and cooking fantastic meals. Better yet, she understands Italian but never speaks.

That’s fine with Luca’s father, who’s no feminist. Indeed, in their scenes together, you can clearly see where Luca’s own mixed-up and arguably misogynistic attitudes about women originated.

As the aliens become more involved with human activity, they seem both loving and vengeful. They cure the sick and even the dead, and attack the evil. No one knows their ultimate plan.

But the aliens here serve the same purpose as the ones in Slaughterhouse-Five. They’re a form of fantasy relief (as opposed to comedy relief) in an otherwise grim and realistic story. Starting out as a comedy, The Last Man on Earth becomes quite serious, and contains one scene of shockingly horrific violence.

With all of its conflicting styles and approaches, the film never really comes together as a whole. And the big surprise revelation at the end (which no, doesn’t involve the aliens) seems forced and melodramatic. But the good scenes, and there are many, outweigh the weak ones.

What’s Screening: February 27 – March 5

The Noise Pop Film Festival continues through Sunday, while Cinequest runs through this week and beyond.

Here’s what else is screening:

A Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, Embarcadero, Rafael, Shattuck, opens Friday. Viviane Amsalem moved out of her husband’s home years ago. But her remote and stubborn spouse won’t give her a divorce. The resulting court case spans years in this chamber drama imageset in Israel, where only the husband can initiate a divorce. The filmmakers chose a simple, direct, and very effective way to tell their story. Although the film covers many years in the lives of the main characters, it’s entirely set in a small, plain judicial chamber and an adjoining waiting room. While clearly an indictment of Israeli marital laws, it’s also an intimate tale of a very bad marriage, told in an atmosphere of extreme claustrophobia. Read my full review.

Balboa Birthday Bash, Balboa, Sunday, 7:00. The Balboa Theater celebrates its 89th imagebirthday with live entertainment, champagne, cake, and, of course, a movie. Among the acts: magician and escape artist Big Al Catraz (hey, I didn’t make up that name), musical burlesque by Kitten on the Keys, and "Industrial Ragtime" by Parlor Tricks. The movie will be Chicago, not the Oscar-winning musical from 2002, but the original, silent version . With piano accompaniment by Fredrick Hodges. Hosted by Gary Meyer.

B+ Whiplash, Kabuki, opens Friday. Set in a fictitious music conservatory, Whiplash follows a young and ambitious jazz drummer (Miles Teller) as he is tortured and abused by a horrifically imagecruel music teacher. The film’s key pleasure is watching veteran character actor J.K. Simmons, in the Oscar-winning role of a lifetime, as the most evil music teacher since The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. Other pleasures include the music (of course) and Teller’s way of making you root for the protagonist, even though he’s pretty much a dick. But the film is set in an almost all-male world (although I’ve been told since I first wrote about it that this is actually pretty accurate in jazz), and the teacher would realistically have been fired years ago.

B+ Clouds Of Sils Maria, California Theatre (San Jose), Sunday, 7:15. A great actress (Juliette Binoche) reluctantly accepts a part in a revival of the play that made her famous long ago. But this time, she’ll be playingimagea different, older character. To prepare for the role, the actress and her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) take up residence in a remote house located in an astonishingly beautiful part of the Swiss Alps. As they run lines, they almost unconsciously work through their own complicated relationship, which only  slightly echoes play’s characters. This isn’t quite a two-person film, but Binoche and Stewart truly carry the picture. Part of Cinequest.

A Lack of Privacy double bill: The Lives of Others & Citizenfour, Castro, Wednesday. The A goes to The Lives of Others. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck creates a very intimate, human story about the horrors of Communism and all forms of totalitarianism, and turns it into a suspenseful thriller. In East Germany, an up-and-coming secret police officer must gather dirt on a playwright–for reasons that are utterly absurd. Slowly, bit by bit, the secret policeman comes to identify with his prey and lose faith in the Socialist ideal. In Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’ camera puts us in  the Hong Kong hotel room where Edward Snowden tells Glenn Greenwald about the NSA’s horrendous destruction of our privacy. But the long discussions become visually boring, despite the important and fascinating story at their core. I give this one a B. Read my longer essay.

A+ Casablanca, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. You’ve either casablancaalready seen the best film to come out of the classic Hollywood studio system, or you know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another sausage coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. For more details, see Casablanca: The Accidental Masterpiece.

A Hitchcock double bill: Psycho & The Birds, Thursday through next Sunday. The A goes to Psycho, where Alfred Hitchcock leaves the audience unsure who we’re supposed to root for or what could constitute a imagehappy ending. Janet Leigh  and Anthony Perkins defined their careers in Hitchcock’s last masterpiece. But I can only give a B- to the film that followed it. The Birds has some great sequences. The scene where Tippi Hedren calmly sits and smokes while crows gather on playground equipment, and the following attack on the children, are classics. But the story is weak, the ending unsatisfactory, and new-comer Hedren–while beautiful–is utterly lacking in acting talent or charisma.

A- The Princess Bride, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. William Goldman’s enchanting imageand funny fairy tale dances magically along that thin line between parody and the real thing. The then-young and gorgeous Cary Elwes and Robin Wright make a wonderful set of star-crossed lovers, and Mandy Patinkin has a lot of fun as a revenge-filled swashbuckler. There’s no funnier swordfight anywhere, and who can forget cinema’s greatest acronym, ROUS (rodents of unusual size). On the other hand, some of the big-name cameos really grate on your nerves.

A Timbuktu, New Parkway, opens Saturday. Abderrahmane Sissako’s remarkable film feels a bit like one of those Altman movies about intertwining lives. But these lives have been severely disrupted by Timbuktuan armed group of Muslim fundamentalists. Music, smoking, soccer and women with bare hands are now forbidden. At first, even the occupiers act calm and friendly, and reluctant to enforce the new rules. But as the film progresses, the fanatics become less of a joke and more of a mortal threat. Timbuktu’s overall sense of tragedy and helplessness sneaks upon you slowly. I suspect that’s how it happens in real life. Read my full review.

A- Selma, Lark, opens Friday. I found it difficult at first to accept David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King and Tom Wilkinson as LBJ. They didn’t look and sound right. But as the film progressed, I accepted them and got lost in the powerful and image(unfortunately) still timely story. I had no problem accepting Carmen Ejogo’s spot-on perfect performance as Coretta Scott King. The film’s biggest strength comes from its picture of King as a flawed human being filled with doubts, exhaustion, and guilt–a man who would lie to his wife, badly, about his infidelities–but still a great hero. The film’s biggest mistake was letting us meet this real person before showing him as we all know him, as a great orator.

A- Birdman, Kabuki, opens Friday. Michael Keaton plays a has-been movie star, who may or may not have superpowers, imagehoping to gain artistic respectability by writing, directing, and performing in a Broadway play. Edward Norton plays an actor who already has the respect of critics, but is only fully himself when he’s on stage. Like Hitchcock’s Rope, Birdman pretends it was shot in a single take. But unlike Rope,the gimmick works this time around–better technology, I suppose. Much of the film is hysterically funny, but the picture is just a bit too long, and in the end it doesn’t quite satisfy. From Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose Babel was my favorite film of 2006.

B- What We Do in the Shadows, Guild, starts Friday. This vampire mockumentary’s basic idea is funny and promising: An unseen documentaryimage camera crew follow the afterlives of four vampires who share a house in a modern city. They argue about household chores, go out looking for victims, and talk directly into the camera about their undead but still active existences. But the basic idea begins to wear out around the half-way point. The jokes are still funny, but they come farther apart. From the creators of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords.  Read my full review.

C- Vertigo, Castro, Saturday through Monday. 70mm. I recently revisited everybody else’s favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, officially now the greatest film ever made, and I liked it better this time, so much that I’m bringing its grade up from a D to a C-. My main problem is that neither the story nor most of the characters make any sense, and I don’t believe anyone’s motivations. The film contains one wonderful, believable, and likeable character, Barbara Bel Geddes’ Midge, but we don’t see enough of her to offset everything else. Yes, the film is very atmospheric, but that’s just not enough. I don’t need to stare at a screen to experience San Francisco’s fog.

A+ North by Northwest, Stanford, through Sunday. Alfrednbnw Hitchcock’s light masterpiece, not as thoughtful as Rear Window or Notorious, but more entertaining than both of them combined. Cary Grant plays an unusually suave and witty everyman in trouble with evil foreign spies (who think he’s a crack American agent), and by the police (who think he’s a murderer). And so he must escape almost certain death again and again while chased from New York to Mount Rushmore. On the bright side , he gets to spend some quality time with a very glamorous Eva Marie Saint (danger has its rewards). On a Hitchcock double bill with The 39 Steps, which I haven’t seen in decades.

Divorce Israeli Style. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

A Courtroom drama

  • Written and directed by Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi Elkabetz

Viviane Amsalem moved out of her husband’s home years ago. But her remote and stubborn husband won’t give her a divorce. The resulting court case spans years in this chamber drama from Israel.

The filmmakers chose a simple, direct, inexpensive, and very effective way to tell their story. Although the film covers many years in the lives of the main characters, it’s entirely set in a small, plain judicial chamber, with a few scenes in an adjoining waiting room. As in a stage play, the characters’ lives outside of that room are only alluded to in dialog. Although the protagonist, Viviane, has a life and runs her own successful business, the limited settings emphasize that in a very real way, she’s trapped.

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Let me explain: Despite the fact that most Israelis are secular, Orthodox rabbis own a monopoly on Jewish matrimony. You can’t get married or divorced without their approval. And by their rules, only the husband can grant a divorce (gett in Hebrew). If the husband has been particularly cruel, the rabbis can put pressure on him, and even jail him. But only he can set his wife free.

And so the hearings continue. Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) explains the nightmare of her marriage. Her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) proclaims to be a good man and good husband. Witnesses speak on both sides. And little by little, we learn about their lives.

He’s deeply religious and keeps kosher. She grew up that way, and was Orthodox when they married, but now wants to leave religion behind her. And here she is, trying to win the sympathies of three Orthodox rabbis who may hopefully force Elisha’s hands.

Elisha is not a violent man, but he’s cold, self-centered, and horrifically stubborn. You can easily see what a nightmare it would be to be married to such a man. Even the rabbis–who one would assume are pre-disposed to favor an Orthodox man over a secular woman–hate him. But they can’t grant a divorce without him.

Over the years (scenes are separately by intertitles that tell us how many months have gone by), Viviane’s look and demeanor show her growing secular leanings. Her clothes get less modest and more modern over the course of the film.

The picture doesn’t tell us everything about Viviane’s life. For instance, we don’t know if she’s sexually active–quite possibly because she doesn’t want the rabbis to see her as an adulteress. But there are fleeting moments that suggest she has something to hide. And a few glances between her and her very handsome counsel (Menashe Noy) suggest a mutual, although probably not acted on, attraction.

There’s no question that Gett is a didactic film. It’s clearly meant as an indictment of the Israeli system of marriage and divorce. But it’s also an intimate tale of a very bad marriage, told in an atmosphere so claustrophobic that we only see the outside world twice–and both times through a window. And only twice, outside of the opening and closing credits, do we hear music.

Daring in its stripped-down style, Gett never makes you wish for a more expansive canvas. It may make you thankful for the first amendment.

Revisiting Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By

Anyone who cares about silent films has to read Kevin Brownlow’s mammoth oral history survey, The Parade’s Gone By. Not a history book in the usual sense, it describes early Hollywood primarily through the recollections of people who were there. Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, Louise Brooks, and William Wellman were among the many filmmakers who Brownlow interviewed.

imageI first read The Parade’s Gone By in 1972, and wrote a book report on it for a film history class. The book was only four years old at that time, and the American silent era had been dead for 42 years. And now, 42 years after my first reading, I’ve re-read it.

We have far better access to silent films, and I suspect have far more silent film enthusiasts, than we did when I first read this book–or when Brownlow wrote it. Brownlow complains frequently about washed-out prints projected at the wrong speed–the most common way silents were screened in those days, if they were screened at all. Today, thanks to restorations, digital technology, film festivals, and especially thanks to Kevin Brownlow, that’s no longer the case. When I first read this book, I’d seen maybe six silent features in theaters and classrooms–two with live music–and maybe another five on broadcast TV. Now, there are weekends when I see more than that.

One example of how things have changed: When I first read Parade, I fell instantly in love with Louise Brooks. I would have to wait ten more years to actually see her in a film. Now she’s readily available everywhere.

Although the creations of the era are now readily available, the people who created them are long gone. And its these people that Brownlow had access to in the 1960s. Here we have Gloria Swanson describing the time Cecil B. De Mille filmed her with a real lion on her back for Male and Female. "Then they cracked their whips till he roared. It felt like thousands of vibrators. Every hair on my body was standing straight up. I had to close my eyes. The last thing I saw was Mr. De Mille with a gun."

Some of what they say is shocking by today’s standard–and even by the standards of image1968. Mary Pickford, recalling a fight with the American Legion over bringing Ernst Lubitsch to America, quotes a speech she planned but never had a chance to say, which including the argument "I’m white, twenty-one, and an American citizen." By then an old woman, she doesn’t seem to realize how offensive the statement sounds. Curiously, Brownlow put Pickford’s chapter in the section on directors, even though she never was one. She was a star, a producer, and ran a studio, but she never directed.

Decades-old recollections are notoriously inaccurate, but enough of them, well edited, can create a vivid view of the world they recall. I doubt that every incident described in The Parade’s Gone By happened exactly as written. But the general sense of a technical gimmick maturing into a major industry and a magnificent art form, then suddenly dying just as it reaches its peak, comes through. So does the sense of pioneers building something new. Those following today’s tech revolutions would do well to read this book.

Brownlow doesn’t stick entirely to his interviews. He has chapters on Griffith and DeMille, neither of whom lived long enough to be interviewed for this book. It includes chapters on art direction, editing, tinting, and, of course, the talkie revolution that killed one art form to create another. He also devotes two chapters to specific films: Douglas Fairbanks’ version of Robin Hood, and the original Ben Hur.

Although the first chapter is called The Primitive Years and the last one The Talking Picture, Brownlow doesn’t attempt a chronological history. He’s more interested in the flavor of the period, and the day-to-day work. He assumes, for instance, that you already know that Griffith was a beginning of cinema as an art form (an opinion that isn’t as widely held today as it was in 1968).

The British Brownlow focuses his book almost entirely on America, but he turns to Europe for two chapters near the end. The second of these chapters, and by far the longest chapter in the book, covers his hero, Abel Gance. In almost worshipful terms, using both Gance’s words and his own, Brownlow describes Gance as the French Griffith, and the greatest filmmaker of all time. He goes into great detail about the man’s life, and the making of his three most important films. He bemoans the fact that Napoleon (in Brownlow’s eyes the greatest film ever made) no longer exists in anything like its original form.

That was 1968. Today, Napoleon has been beautifully restored. We have Kevin Brownlow to thank for that. And not just for Napoleon. The current access to silent films that we all enjoy is, to a large extent, the result of Brownlow’s life work. And The Parade’s Gone By was the beginning.

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