Longevity

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.