Artistic Darwinism

“Movies today stink! Few of the so-called films of 2005 can hold a candle to the great masterpieces of the last century!”

If you hang around people who love old movies, you hear arguments like that all the time. It never occurs to these people that when you compare any three months’ worth of movies (good and bad) to the best work of 100 years, the century will win.

I call this phenomenon Artistic Darwinism–survival of the best quality. The better a work of art, the more likely it is to outlast the time it was made, resulting in an unrealistically positive view of the past. The next time you hear someone complain that they don’t make movies like they used to, just explain this theory to them. (Or simply say “You’re right. Now they have sound.”)

Quality is relatively constant, but styles change. And if the new styles aren’t to your liking, you’ve got another reasons to believe that everything is deteriorating. But that doesn’t make it actually so. I love the big, 70mm roadshow pictures of the 1950’s and ’60’s. there was something special about the reserved seats, the giant screens, and the intermissions. But I know full well that for every Lawrence of Arabia there were three Cleopatras. And The Greatest Story Ever Told is quite probably the worst movie ever made.

Okay, so much for my rant. My wife and I caught the opening night of the Pacific Film Archive’s Edgar G. Ulmer series, with The Black Cat and Strange Illusion. Both wonderful, low-budget Hollywood gems, both good enough to make me hope I can catch more of this series. But the Archive made one major scheduling error that I just noticed: They’re showing Green Fields, Ulmer’s Yiddish film about Jewish identity, on Purim–a Jewish holiday. Oh, well.

And now, this week’s recommendations and noteworthy engagements:

  • Recommendation: Detour, Pacific Film Archive, Friday night. One of the first, and best, film noirs, and directed by the above-mentioned Ulmer. The film’s star, Ann Savage, will be in attendance with her own, private print.

  • Recommendation: Down By Law, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. This strange and funny Jim Jarmusch film (is that a redundancy) follows the adventures of three unlikely convicts, including a hilarious Italian played by the then-unknown (at least in America) Roberto Benigni.

  • Noteworthy: Rebirth of a Nation, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Friday and Saturday. Rapper DJ Spooky has put together a multimedia musical show that uses clips from D.W. Griffith’s controversial masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation to explore race relations. The ticket prices are high by movie standards (the cheapest seats are $32), but it might be a fascinating experience.

  • Recommendation: The Usual Suspects, The Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight. You probably already know this wonderful, twisted crime thriller. If you don’t, you should.

  • Recommendation: Hail the Conquering Hero, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. The closing double-bill of the Stanford’s Preston Sturges/Marx Brothers series (and the last film at the Stanford until they release a new program) includes one of Sturges’ best. Dorky Eddie Bracken plays a 4F civilian forced to impersonate a war hero. To parody war hoopla in 1944 took guts, and Sturges does it masterfully. Unfortunately, it’s double-billed with one of the Marx Brothers’ weakest efforts, A Night in Casablanca.

  • Recommendation: Hotel Rwanda, Parkway, opening Friday. I can’t recommend this picture enough–certainly one of the best of 2004. It’s the Rwandan Schindler’s List, but more like a suspense thriller and than a historical epic. You pretty much spend the whole time on the edge of your seat.

  • Recommendation: Tokyo Story, Pacific Film Archive, Monday afternoon. Quiet, simple, and masterful. Almost nothing seems to happen in Ozu’s study of family life until quite late in the picture. But you’re riveted to the screen by the seemingly innocuous characters and everyday events. And when something serious happens, it’s devastating–even if it’s something we all must experience.

  • Recommendation: Rashomon, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday afternoon. Kurosawa’s first masterpiece is, quite simply, one of the greatest films ever made. But some people don’t remember it that way.

Reviving the Revival Theater

Remember the revival theaters of the 1970’s? If you don’t, back then the Bay Area overflowed with venues that specialized in old and semi-old movies, many of them changing their double bill every day. (You almost always got a double bill.)

The downside was repetition. These theaters thrived on the three Bs of repertory cinema: Bergman, Bogart, and the Brothers Marx. Not that I complained at the time. It was comforting to know there’d be several chances a year to see Duck Soup, Casablanca, and 8½. (I now own those three movies on DVD, and seldom look at them.)

Many of the films that regularly played the revival circuit were too young to reasonably be called classics, even if we were too young to realize that at the time. Movies like King of Hearts, Harold and Maude, and If… haven’t really stood the test of time, although I confess to a soft spot for them in my heart.

Ah, yes–nostalgia. A classic is an old work that is loved by people too young to feel nostalgic for its original release. The Godfather is a classic; Harold and Maude is not.

But a little nostalgia never hurt anyone. So I propose that some theater schedule a 70’s revival house revival. Each night they would show a double feature popular in the days when unrepentant hippies ran in terror from disco. Among the possible double bills:

  • Harold and Maude and King of Hearts

  • Duck Soup and Animal Crackers

  • Animal House and Horsefeathers

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey and Forbidden Planet

  • Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal (preceded by the short “The Dove”

  • Casablanca and Play It Again, Sam

  • Treasure of Sierra Madre and Key Largo

  • Singin’ in the Rain and Wizard of Oz

  • If… and O Lucky Man

  • Yojimbo and Sanjuro

Hey, a man can dream, can’t he?

Okay, let’s get on with what’s actually getting shown:

  • Recommendation: Raging Bull and Taxi Driver (an actual double bill), Balboa, through the week. Do I really have to say much about these two? I didn’t think so.

  • Noteworthy: Harold and Maude, Act I & 2, Friday through Sunday, midnight and noon. I honestly wrote the comments above without realizing that this one was coming to town. Maybe I’ll catch it.

  • Recommendation: Sullivan’s Travels and Room Service, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. More Preston Sturges and the Marx Brothers. Sullivan’s Travels is widely regarded as Sturges’ greatest achievement. I find it uneven, but still worth recommending. But Room Service is strictly for Marx fanatics. It’s a curious movie–the only Marx Brothers flick based on a non-Marx Brothers play. It’s got some funny moments, but the story and the stars never quite mesh.

  • Recommendation: The Birth of a Nation, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Sunday afternoon. Should I recommend one of the most racist and offensive movies ever made? Yes, because it is so important historically, both in how it changed cinema (which was considered neither an art nor a big business before Birth of a Nation) and what it says about American racial relationships in the early 20th century. It’s also a brilliantly-made and involving film, which makes its racism all the more disturbing. This screening will be introduced by editor, writer, and art critic Alison Bing, and is a prelude to next week’s presentation of DJ Spooky’s multimedia show, Rebirth of a Nation.

  • Recommendation: The Big Lebowski, Parkway, Thursday night. This Coen Brothers gem was originally panned–a disappointing follow-up to their previous endeavor, Fargo. Well, it isn’t as good as Fargo, but it’s still one hell of a funny movie.


Let’s assume, for the moment, that sound movies existed in 1601, and that the first production of Hamlet was recorded for posterity. Remember that the title role was tailored to a particular actor, Richard Burbage, just as surely as was the role of Charles Foster Kane. And if we had such a movie, we would know exactly how Burbage played the part.

But would we have any other Hamlets? Would Olivier, Burton, or Branagh (to say nothing of Jack Benny) have undertaken the task of making this great part their own? What about the countless unknown but talented actors who’ve performed the part on stage? After all, what actor or director would dare recreate and reinterpret the part of Kane?

And how would Burbage’s Hamlet look today? Would we accept what would probably be a very different acting style? Accents that might sound more Appalachian than British? Men in drag? Hamlet, in all likelihood, would be an obscure work enjoyed by a devoted few, not the vibrant, living masterpiece that we have today.

What I’m getting at is this: Perhaps film as an art is too whole, too fixed, too complete for individual works to last. I’m not talking about the technical issues–fading dyes and rotting nitrate–but the very nature of a recorded narrative story told through photography, acting, and editing.

This isn’t easy for me to say. It goes against my gut feelings. But I can’t ignore the argument, either.

We cinephiles want each great movie to be a moment frozen in time. We get angry when a favorite is re-edited, panned and scanned, or colorized. And heaven forbid that anyone should ever remake anything! This is an attitude unique to film. Stage plays are redirected with every production, often with the text altered and cut. Novels get recast and redesigned by every reader. No one complains when someone rerecords Beethoven’s 9th or Louie Louie.

The movies we love are more available now than ever. I used to cross the bay for a chance to watch Singin’ in the Rain or Grapes of Wrath; now I own them (and I might still cross the bay to see them in 35mm). But fewer and fewer people are interested in old movies. In 1973, The Los Angeles International Film Festival and the then new American Film Institute conducted a survey to create a list of the 50 greatest American films. Seven of the top ten were silent. When AFI compiled a similar list of the 100 Greatest American Movies in 1998, only one silent, The Birth of a Nation, made the top 50.

As film as an art enters its second century, is there anything we can do to keep the classics alive? We can hope I’m wrong, of course. But perhaps we should be a little more tolerant of remakes and altered versions–with one important provision: That the original remain available.

We don’t have Burbage’s Hamlet, but we can always compare Welles’ Kane with the Adam Sandler remake.

And now, this week’s recommendations and noteworthy engagements:

  • Recommendation: Unfaithfully Yours and A Night at the Opera, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. These two classical music comedies aren’t as good as some of the previous choices in the ongoing Preston Sturges/Marx Brothers series, but they each have some hysterical scenes. Just remember that the party of the first part shall be known as the party of the first part.

  • Noteworthy: Tiburon International Film Festival, Saturday. The festival runs through Thursday, but Saturday’s line-up looks especially great. There are tributes to Hollywood stuntmen, Orson Welles, and Malcolm McDowell (who will be there in person), the documentary Z Channel (about an early, influential cable TV station devoted to independent film), A Clockwork Orange, and a lot of movies I’ve never heard of.

  • Noteworthy: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Red Vic, Sunday and Monday. I really went back and forth about whether I should recommend this one. I used to worship this film, and while it hasn’t aged well (we’ve seen the real 2001, and it wasn’t like the movie), it’s still worth seeing. But it was intended to be seen in 70mm projected onto a giant, curved, Cinerama screen. Even 70mm on the Castro’s 42-foot flat screen doesn’t do the visuals justice, so 35mm at the Red Vic is bound to be disappointing. (Full disclosure: I have yet to visit the Red Vic, which I understand is a wonderful place. But nothing I’ve read or heard about it makes me believe it would do this particular movie justice.)

  • Recommendation: Brazil, Castro, Monday through Thursday. After Dr. Strangelove, this is the great black comedy of the cinema, and the best distopian fantasy of them all. Which version is the Castro showing? The schedule promises a new print of the “director’s cut,” but of the five known versions of the film, four were supervised and approved by director and co-writer Terry Gilliam. From what I’ve been told, this is the original 142-minute “European” version, which is slightly different from the “Criterion” version available on DVD–which also runs 142 minutes. Both versions are wonderful.

  • Recommendation: Dr. StrangeLove, Red Vic, Tuesday and Wednesday. If Brazil at the Castro doesn’t get you laughing and depressed, Stanley Kubrick’s nightmare comedy about nuclear war is sure to do the trick.

Oscar Post-Moderm

Michael Medved is right—Hollywood is out of touch with America. Sunday night, we watched the Academy pick the smart one, the one with quality, the right one. That’s not the way America votes.

In all the post-Oscar talk about Chris Rock and Beyonce, there’s one interesting statistic that no one seemed to notice: For the second year in a row, half of the acting Oscars went to performances directed by Clint Eastwood. That’s got to be some kind of record.

Twenty years ago, would you have believed that Clint Eastwood would one day be a better director than Martin Scorsese? Me, neither. But Scorsese peaked early, and Eastwood peaked late. Somewhere in the 1990’s, they passed each other.

But enough of the past. This Thursday marks the opening of two local festivals, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival and the Tiburon International Film Festival. The later takes over the three-screen Tiburon Playhouse for a week, showing 270 films from over 60 countries. Among the major events are tributes to Orson Welles, stuntmen, and Malcolm McDowell (including a screening of Clockwork Orange). And those are just next Saturday!

The Asian American Festival isn’t offering half as many movies, but you won’t have to drive to Marin to catch it, since there will be showings in San Francisco, San Jose, and Berkeley. The line-up includes three world premieres, several local premieres, an on-stage interview with documentary filmmaker Steven Okazaki, and both a documentary about and concert by Margaret Leng Tan, master of the toy piano (yes, you heard that right).

And now, this week’s notes and recommendations:

  • Recommendation: A Very Long Engagement, Balboa and Parkway, ongoing. True, this World War I epic by the folks that brought you Amélie is difficult to follow. It’s a mystery, which makes it dialog dependent. But it’s also a visual feast, which tempts your eyes away from the subtitles. But the atmosphere, the characters, and the recreation of war’s horrors make it worth seeing, anyway. Think of it as the romantic version of Paths of Glory.

  • Recommendation: Safety Last, California Theatre (San Jose), Friday night. Harold Lloyd’s iconic image–hanging from the clock. This isn’t Lloyd at his best until the last third, but even mediocre Lloyd is funnier than most comics. And when he starts climbing that building, the laughs don’t stop. With organ accompaniment by Chris Elliott.

  • Recommendation: The Conformist, Castro, Friday through Wednesday. Bernardo Bertolucci’s early masterpiece about fascism and the type of people who make it possible. The Castro promises a restored print in “great shape,” along with the original trailer for Nicholas Ray’s 1956 Bigger Than Life.

  • Recommendation: Christmas in July & Monkey Business, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. The Preston Sturges and Marx Brothers festival continues. If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee, it’s the bunk.

  • Noteworthy: A Star Is Porn, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Friday night. Remember that old SCTV sketch about non-sex scenes in porn? Well, YBCA has actually put together a program of such entertainment, specifically from hardcore movies that parodied legitimate flicks like Clockwork Orange, Gone with the Wind, and Snow White.

  • Recommendation: Saving Face, Castro, Thursday night. The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival gets off to a great start with this Chinese American lesbian comedy (sounds like it should be set in San Francisco, but it isn’t) about a young doctor (Michelle Krusiec) trying to hide her homosexuality. It’s funny, touching, and sexy, even if by the last act you can feel the screenwriter straining to deliver a happy ending. Joan Chen does a wonderfully funny turn as the doctor’s widowed, pregnant, and disgraced mother. Watch for the Graduate homage.