Oscar Nominations

January 30, 2005
There were no big surprises in the Oscar nominations this week. I’ve been saying for the last month that The Aviator will take Best Picture, and now it’s the official front-runner. Not that it deserves to win that Oscar–I could name five better films this year without even stretching my mind (Hotel Rwanda, Million Dollar Baby, Ray, Spiderman II, Badasss, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind–oops; that was six). But I’m not really upset about it. The Aviator was fun to watch, it was the sort of movie that Hollywood loves to honor, and it’s about time Scorsese won. Funny how he had to come down a peg from his best work to finally be a serious Oscar contender. Still, The Aviator was better than Gangs of New York.

So, on to this week’s footnotes. Or, to be more precise, footnote:

San Francisco Independent Film Festival
The Seventh Annual San Francisco Independent Film Festival opens its two-week, four-venue run Thursday night at the Castro. Actually, Thursday night is the only night it will be at the Castro. From there it moves to the Roxie and the Woman’s Building. The last two nights it will also screen films at the Mama Buzz Cafe in Oakland.

I haven’t seen any of the announced films (that’s sort of the point of a film festival, isn’t it?), so I can’t give any real recommendations. But here are some films that, based on their description, sparked my curiosity:

  • Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation. Three teenagers made a shot-by-shot, no-budget recreation of one of the best-loved action movies of all time.

  • Made in Secret: The Story of the East Van Porn Collective. This documentary follows a group of amateur Vancouver pornographers motivated by their dislike of conventional porn.

  • 24 Hours on Craigslist. Another documentary. I think the name says it all.

  • Blackball. This British comedy puts a flashy, sexy, professional-style athlete into what must be the least flashy, sexy, or professional sport of all, lawn bowling,. It’s directed by Mel Smith (The Tall Guy, Bean). I’ve already got plans to see this one, so I’ll let you know what I think of it.

How Music Can Change a Silent Film

My wife and I went to the Pacific Film Archive Friday night to see two great late silent dramas, The Crowd and Sunrise. We were both familiar with The Crowd, having watched it together about a year ago on Turner Classic Movies. But this time, the ending was different–more upbeat. The televised version left us feeling that while the characters were happy at the moment, they weren’t going to stay that way for long. But the 35mm print screened at the PFA reassured us that everything was going to be okay.

No, it wasn’t a different cut of the movie. Only the music had changed. The video version has a symphonic score by one of the video age’s stars of silent film accompaniment, Carl Davis. The PFA presented the film with live piano accompaniment by a less-known local treasure, Judith Rosenberg. Both scores were terrific, but very different, especially in their interpretation of King Vidor’s ambiguous ending.

All of which brings me to one of my favorite aspects of silent movies: They aren’t quite complete until someone adds music. This incompleteness makes them alive in a way that sound films can never be. Stage plays are alive that way. Hamlet gets recreated with every new production, with different actors, designers, and musicians reinterpreting Shakespeare’s words. Citizen Kane, on the other hand, is a done deal; there’s nothing you can do except watch it–and preserve it. Silent films fall somewhere in between. You can’t recast or redesign Sunrise, but you can always rescore it.

And that leads to a problem with silent films on video. Once you buy a silent movie on DVD (or VHS or Laserdisc), it’s very easy for that particular score to become, in your own mind, the soundtrack for the film. But, of course, it isn’t. It’s only one score for the film. You have to remember that.

One solution is to own more than one copy of a favorite silent movie, but frankly, that seems a bit obsessive. (I do own two copies of The General, a Laserdisc with a Carl Davis score, and DVD scored by Robert Israel, but that was a matter of buying the DVD to replace the Laserdisc, and then deciding to keep both.) DVDs can carry multiple soundtracks, making it possible for them to carry more than one score. Unfortunately, economic realities make multi-scored DVDs a rarity. But a few are out there.

This week’s footnotes:

The Film and the Lotus
Buddhism is in the air, these days. The International Buddhist Film Festival opens Friday at the Castro before long runs in Berkeley and San Rafael, and the Pacific Film Archive starts its own Monday afternoon Buddhism and Film series (actually an undergraduate class open to the public). And what are they starting the series off with? Film–a strange collaboration between Samuel Becket and Buster Keaton (yes, you read that right). I’ve been wanting to see this short for years. Unfortunately, 3:00 on Monday afternoon isn’t really practical for me.

The Art of the Double Bill
I have not seen either I Wake Up Screaming or In a Lonely Place, showing Wednesday night at the Balboa’s Noir festival. But I just have to compliment Eddie Muller for putting these two titles together (I’m not talking about the movies here, just the titles). Wouldn’t you be intrigued by a show called “I Wake Up Screaming in a Lonely Place?”

The Paramount is Back
If you’ve never been to a Movies Classics night at Oakland’s Paramount theater, you’re in for a treat. And if you have…well, you’re still in for a treat. The Paramount is a beautiful old picture palace lovingly restored, and is home to Oakland’s Symphony and Ballet. But about 20 times a year, it offers a movie night complete with organ concert, cartoons, an old newsreel, a raffle, and a classic film–all for $6.00. The winter movie series starts this Friday night with The Maltese Falcon. The doors open at 7:00–a full hour before the show. And that’s an hour you can spend exploring the nooks and crannies of this amazing theater.

And So is Ray Harryhausen
Do I really have to say more than that An Evening with Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years sounds like a lot of fun. If you’re familiar with Harryhausen’s work, you already know that. And if you’re not familiar with the only special effects expert who can truly be called an auteur (a Harryhausen film is a Harryhausen film, regardless of who directed it), go rent the original Jason and the Argonauts (not the recent TV remake) and discover what all the fuss is about.

Other recommendations:

  • On the Waterfront plays the Castro Monday through Thursday.

  • The Noir City festival concludes this week at the Balboa.

  • The Shop Around the Corner comes around to the Pacific Film Archive tonight. The second feature, Shampoo, is good, but not in the same class.

  • Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia comes to the archive on Thursday.

  • Ray and The Incredibles continue their run at the Parkway.

  • The Red Vic is showing Gimme Shelter Thursday night. If you ever wonder why the 60’s didn’t last, come and see the flip side of Woodstock. 

David Thomson and The Last Tycoon

I attended the opening of David Thomson’s series at the Pacific Film Archive Thursday night. He talked for nearly an hour, but it felt like 20 minutes–a terrific speaker! He ranged fro the nature of movies, our reactions to them, Hollywood, and the bottom line of making a film that works: The viewers “have to want to know what happens next.” He brought out props, got volunteers from the audience, and recreated a scene from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last novel The Last Tycoon.

He described an experiment he tried when he was in film school. He went into the editing room, assembled a reel from other students’ discards (which he didn’t even bother to look at), than projected it for an audience, who promptly fell into a debate about the work. The moral? “We can’t resist finding meaning.”

An Englishman who has lived in San Francisco for many years, he discussed what he saw as a fundamental difference between the European and American attitudes about life. Americans, he said (and I’m not using quotes because I failed to take notes at this point), believe they deserve to be happy. And it’s that expectation that leads to our preference for melodrama.

At the end of his talk, he warned us that that night’s movie, The Last Tycoon (the reason for recreating a scene from the book) was “far and away the worst film the series.” He wasn’t kidding. If his series was titled “10 Hollywood features picked at random,” The Last Tycoon might still have been the worst. Based on Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel, which was itself based on the life of Irving Thalberg, this movie about movies just sits there, totally lifeless and uninvolving. At times I had to fight back the temptation to go Mystery Science Theater on it and provide my own sarcastic commentary.

To put it another way, The Last Tycoon is an excellent argument against film preservation.

Seriously, this movie is solid proof that a project can look great on paper and be a complete disaster on film. It should have been great. Screenplay by Harold Pinter, adopted from a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Directed by Elia Kazan. Produced by Sam Spiegel. Staring Robert De Niro, with support from Robert Mitchum, Jack Nicholson, Jeanne Moreau, John Carradine, and other greats.

On the other hand, De Niro’s love interest was a beautiful, unknown, and utterly talentless non-entity named Ingrid Boulting. She couldn’t act, she had no charisma, and beyond her physical attributes she had no sex appeal. This woman was completely incapable of doing for the camera what she was probably doing to the producer.

Upcoming Films of Note

Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 retelling of Frank Norris’ novel McTeague is one of the most tantalizing might-have-beens in movie history. Stroheim’s first cut ran about eight hours. He cut it down to about four, which was still unacceptable to studio head Irving Thalberg (the inspiration for The Last Tycoon). The film, as released, runs about two (it’s impossible to give accurate running times for silent films, as there was no set projection speed at that time) in a cut that Stroheim disowned. The result is a strong, disturbing movie. But what was the original like?

In 1999, we finally got a partial answer. Turner Classic Movies restored the film to something like the original conception, using Stroheim’s script and still photos of the now-lost scenes. This version, which isn’t available on film or DVD, is quite simply amazing–an absolute must for anyone who cares about American silent film. That it works so well despite often being more of a slide show than a motion picture makes the lost original all the more impressive.

Unfortunately, Thursday night’s showing at the Pacific Film Archive is the shorter, 1924 release. Judith Rosenberg will be accompanying the movie on piano.

The Crowd and Sunrise
The day after Greed, the Archive is showing two of the greatest American silent dramas ever made. The Crowd, especially, is a mind-blower–a wonderful, yet very sad look at the underbelly of the American dream. Hollywood loves movies about people who seek fame and fortune, reach for that brass ring, and win it in joyful victory. The Crowd shows something far more common: someone who wants fame and fortune, but never really quite realizes that that ring is beyond his grasp.

The Crowd opened in 1928, the year that sound moved from a fad to the inevitable. But when you compare The Crowd to a 1928 talkie like Lights of New York, you have to wonder why sound won.

Once again, Judith Rosenberg will accompany the movie on piano.

Other Recommendations

  • The Noir City festival continues at the Balboa.

  • Tonight, also as part of the David Thomson festival, the Archive will be showing two very funny screwball comedies, My Man Godfrey and Sullivan’s Travels.

  • Ray and The Incredibles continue their run downstairs at the Parkway–two great films but a strange double bill. This is a good way to see them cheap.
  • Except Tuesday, when the Parkway will be showing Time Bandits for free. They’re still showing The Incredibles that night, meaning you can see two great family films in an adult-only environment.
  • The Red Vic is showing two of Kurosawa’s best, Rashomon tonight and Sanjuro tomorrow night.

New, Old, and 2004

There’s a lot to cover today. New films, old films, 2004, and some great festivals.

First, I can’t recommend Hotel Rwanda enough. I saw it last night, and if a better film came out last year, I haven’t seen it. By now you all know the story. Don Cheadle plays Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of a posh hotel in Rwanda during the upheavals of 1994.  Rusesabagina (an actual person now living in Belgium) saved over 1200 Tutsis from the genocide that took hundreds of thousands of lives while the world watched.

For obvious reasons, Hotel Rwanda is often compared to Schindler’s List. Director/co-writer Terry George took a very different approach; this film feels more like a suspense thriller and less like a historical epic. And make no mistake–this is one of the scariest, most nerve-wracking films ever made. You pretty much spend the whole time at the edge of your seat, wondering how Rusesabagina is going to bluff, lie, and bribe his way out of another seemingly hopeless situation.

If my description sounds repetitive or unbelievable, let me assure you that the movie is none of these things.

By the way, I managed to see The Aviator last week, as well. It’s good, but not great. Hotel Rwanda has my vote for the best film of 2004, The Aviator has my bet for winning the Best Picture Oscar.

Overall, 2004 was an excellent year at the movies, with signs of better things to come. Among the good signs:

  • Jamie Foxx proved to be a major actor and star with Collateral and Ray.

  • The big special effects blockbuster of the summer, Spiderman, was also an excellent character study of a young man getting pulled apart by separate and conflicting desires and responsibilities. The action was great, but it was so much more than an action movie that it (hopefully) raised the bar for future summer fare.

  • A lot of what I heard about The Passion of the Christ upset me (I didn’t see it), but I’m still glad that a movie with subtitles became the big hit of the spring.

  • And one of the big hits of the summer, Fahrenheit 911, was a documentary.

  • At one point last spring, two (count ’em, two) black and white movies were in first-run release; The Saddest Music in the World and Coffee and Cigarettes.

  • Major movie studios (or at least their art film subsidiaries) released three films with NC-17 ratings (The Dreamers, Young Adam, and A Dirty Shame). Unfortunately, the way things are going in the country right now, I doubt we’ll be seeing more of this.

Okay, on to the revival and specialty theaters I’m supposed to be writing about. The Pacific Film Archive is reopening this week after its usual holiday break, and the line-up they have for the new schedule makes me want to live in that theater. They’re starting with a series curated by film historian David Thomson, built around his new book, The Whole Equation. Thomson is showing a terrific collection of Hollywood classics and interesting historical oddities, and introducing each film. Other series include Japanese Experimental Film & Video (continuing from previous series), movies about games, an African film festival, and Film Preservation Week. I’ll discuss more films as they come up.

Also starting this week is Noir City

, The San Francisco Film Noir Festival, at its new home at the Balboa.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year! May your 2005 be as joyful as a dance with Fred and Ginger, and may your spirit and zest for life last like old-time Technicolor.

It’s another slow week for the revival and art houses, probably because there’s so much worth seeing in the first-run houses, right now. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t been able to get to much of it. I was hoping to catch The Aviator yesterday, but family, rain, and a late start on the day kept me home.

But things are heating up. Next week will see the launch of the 3rd Annual San Francisco Film Noir Festival in its new home at the Balboa Theater (more on that next week) and the reopening of the Pacific Film Archive after it’s usual Holiday Season shutdown. More on that next week.

While I’ve been staying at home, I’ve been slowly working through the More Treasures of American Film Archives DVD set, and I can’t recommend it enough. The three discs contain 50 films, ranging in length from a few seconds to 89 minutes, from the birth of the medium until 1931. Not everything is intrinsically entertaining, but it’s all fascinating history. And much of it is very entertaining. So far, my favorite find is a 1925 Rin-Tin-Tin feature called Clash of the Wolves. It’s a silly melodrama, of course, but it’s a fun silly melodrama. And Rin Tin Tin is absolutely the best non-human movie star I’ve ever seen. He emotes, he follows the action, he does his own stunts. And he’s charismatic as all hell.

Rin-Tin-Tin was a real movie star. I’m not talking Lassie, here, who was actually a character played by multiple dogs. Like human stars, he played a different character, with a different name, in each film (although, like many human stars, his character didn’t change much from picture to picture). And like any great movie star, his very presence turns a mediocre movie into a great one.

I don’t think there’s a commercial print available, but I’d love to see Clash of the Wolves in a real theater, with live music, and an audience of enthusiastic children. The best I could do was showing it to my own 12-year-old girl, who laughed and cheered and cried “Aww, that’s so cute” at all the right times.