Let’s start with the festival report.
Brad Bird’s talk Sunday night was every bit as good as I’d hoped. It was amusing, thoughtful, and intelligent. In other words, he used funny voices and said almost nothing with which I didn’t agree.
He talked mostly about the death of showmanship, decrying such trends as smaller theaters and screens, commercials before the trailers, the dominance of home video, and haphazard projection that ruins brand-new prints. Although he also blamed studios and filmgoers, “Exhibitors,– he concluded, “have to pick up the ball.– He also predicted that small, intimate movies may soon stop playing in theaters and go directly to video, and warned that “We better preserve the great single-screen theaters.–
If you loved The Incredibles’ Edna ‘E’ Mode, you know that Bird is quite the vocal acrobat. His voices included an intimidated theater employee (“I was told that was the way the movie was supposed to look–), a snarling beast (his reaction when Pixar’s DVD folks wanted to talk home video and he was thinking movie theater), and performed Edna on request during the Q&A session.
I also caught The Alloy Orchestra double bill Monday night. Blackmail was a strange experience. Separate talkie and silent versions were common in the early sound era, but I never before had a chance to compare both versions of the same movie. I own the talkie Blackmail on DVD, and for long chunks of the running time, this was the same movie. But it was a silent.
And it was better than the talkie. Certain scenes in the talkie drag on, presumably to show off all that talk. This time, no scene lasted longer than appropriate.
By the way, am I the only one who thinks Donald Calthrop, who played the blackmailer in Blackmail, is a dead ringer for Kenneth Branagh?
The Phantom of the Opera is what it is–”a simple melodrama raised to the level of art by the sheer force of atmosphere. And in this presentation, the atmosphere was thick and heady.
Color had a lot to do with it. The two-color Technicolor process used for the ball scene was nothing new–”I’ve never seen a print without it. But this new print, commissioned by The Alloy Orchestra, also recreates the original extensive tints, as well as the old Handschiegl hand-cut stencil technique used in one scene to turn the Phantom’s cape red. This stenciling was the only disappointment. I’ve seen impressively accurate, authentic stencil color (try the Silent Shakespeare and Hell’s Angels DVDs), but here, it was just a splotch of color in the right general location.
Speaking of atmosphere, The Alloy Orchestra added plenty to each film, especially Phantom, where the title itself suggests music. This trio (funny how the word orchestra is used these days) is definitely one of the most exciting things happening in silent movie music today. I doubt Andrew Lloyd Webber could have improved it.
On to other news. As The Reel San Francisco festival continues at the Balboa, personal appearances by filmmakers and historians have become the standard. Almost every night there’s some appropriate person introducing at least one movie on the double bill. Kudos to Gary Meyer for getting these people to commit.
Finally, I just heard that Pacific Film Archive Director and Senior Curator Edith Kramer is retiring this summer. What a loss. Few equal her commitment to film as an art form, or her talent as a programmer and educator. I interviewed Edith for Oakland City Magazine last year, and found her to be generous with her time and a stimulating conversationalist. Edith deserves a long and happy retirement, but to lose Anita Monga and Edith Kramer within a few months–¦that’s sad news for Bay Area film fans.
But I’m still here, with this week’s recommendations and noteworthy movies.
Noteworthy: The Riverside, Kabuki, Friday night. I don’t know if this new Iranian film is any good, but I’m gambling the price of a festival ticket that it is. The plot is reminiscent of No Man’s Land; this time with a young bride stepping on a mine that will go off if she lifts her foot. But this one, according to the program notes, is more a “a metaphor for human sorrow, displacement and hope– than a black comedy of war’s dehumanization.
Recommendation: Harold and Maude and Play It Again, Sam, Balboa, Friday and Saturday. Here’s your chance to see two of the great comedies of the early 70’s on one double bill. Harold and Maude, with a young Bud Cort falling in love with an elderly Ruth Gordon, balances between –˜60’s idealism and –˜70’s nihilism like no other movie, while Play It Again, Sam showed us, five years before Annie Hall, that Woody Allen could tell a real story and still be funny. Co-star Susan Anspach will speak both days before the 8:45 show. Part of the Balboa’s Reel San Francisco festival.
Recommendation: Mean Girls, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight. If you judge movies by their ad campaigns, this is a standard-issue coming-of-age comedy for girls in their early teens. And it certainly provides the ingredients for commercial, genre success. But it’s also thoughtful, intelligent, and genuinely funny.
Noteworthy: Dial “M” for Murder, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. This is not great Hitchcock, but it has the unique status of being the only 3D movie made by a great director. The Stanford can show proper, dual-projector 3D, but if they’re showing Dial “M– that way, they haven’t announced it. On a double-bill with Saboteur, which is also not great Hitchcock, although it’s definitely better than Dial “M– for Murder.
Recommendation: Downfall, Parkway and Rafael, ongoing. Yes, it humanizes Hitler, but as human beings go, he doesn’t come off as someone you’d want to hang with, let alone run your country. A frightening and fascinating study of the collapse of a society that never should have existed in the first place, and a meditation on the danger of unquestioning faith.
Noteworthy: The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday afternoon and Kabuki, Sunday afternoon. This three-hour documentary by Adam (Century of the Self) Curtis examines how leaders use fear to control their populations. Part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Recommendation: Ran, Castro, Sunday. Kurosawa’s last epic, and his last masterpiece, retells King Lear as a sweeping tale of chaos in feudal Japan. Beautiful, moving, and profoundly sad, it makes Shakespeare’s original seem upbeat by comparison. Unlike Shakespeare, Kurosawa considers what his king did before he became old, and it isn’t pretty. The film, on the other hand, is as visually gorgeous as movies get.
Noteworthy: Gentleman’s Agreement, Lark, Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. One of the few studio-era Hollywood films to deal with American anti-Semitism, this is no masterpiece. But it was courageous in its time, and it’s an excellent example of a postwar trend in serious, socially-conscious films that was killed by the blacklist.
Noteworthy: Vertigo, Balboa, Sunday and Monday. What? I’m not recommending Vertigo? Everyone else thinks it’s a masterpiece, but I find it one of the most overrated films of all time–”slow, uninvolving, and self-consciously arty. For great Hitchcock, give me Rear Window or Notorious. Author Aaron Leventhal (Footsteps In the Fog) introduces the Sunday showings. On a double bill with Woman on the Run. Part of the Balboa’s Reel San Francisco festival.
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