Movies As They Were Meant to be Seen?

“What did you think of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet?”

“Oh, come on! You can’t really call that Hamlet, can you? Hamlet was meant to be seen live, not canned. And why cast Kate Winslet and Julie Christie when Ophelia and Gertrude are supposed to be played by boys? And what’s Branagh doing there? If it ain’t Richard Burbage, it ain’t Hamlet!”

Pretty silly argument, isn’t it? And yet, we cinephiles say things like that all the time. We want a movie to look and sound exactly as it looked and sounded on opening night (unless, of course, it was cut by the studio before the premiere; then we want it restored to the director’s original intent).

But what we want is an impossible goal. Part of the problem is technical. As movie technology changes, old looks become more difficult to recreate. Eastmancolor doesn’t look like IB Technicolor. Acetate doesn’t look like nitrate. Digital stereo doesn’t sound like magnetic.

There’s no technical reason why Branagh couldn’t cast Leonardo DiCaprio as Ophelia, but it wouldn’t have worked. What was normal for Shakespeare’s audiences would seem distractingly bizarre today. So the problem isn’t just technical; it’s cultural.

Hamlet is a masterpiece because it transcends all that. Modern productions, whether for stage or screen, bear little resemblance to opening night at the Globe. The play is re-imagined and reinterpreted with each production, and that only makes Hamlet greater.

Films don’t get re-imagined (except for remakes and Star Wars movies), but they can’t help changing with time. We watch Citizen Kane and think of the later, fatter Orson Welles. Animal Crackers (which, like Hamlet, was originally a stage play written for a very specific cast) is still very funny, but its clumsy staging and photography look crude if you’re not awed by the amazing miracle of talking pictures. When was the last time you watched 2001: A Space Odyssey and marveled at both the wonders of the near future and the huge, deeply-curved Cinerama screen?

The great films will last forever, even if the next generation of cinephiles watches them (heaven forbid) on an iPod. Fortunately, this week you can still catch some good ones in theaters.

Recommended, with Reservations: Art School Confidential, 4Star, Elmwood, and Parkway,opening Friday. Calling this Terry Zwigoff’s worst film is like praising it with a faint damn. A comedy/drama/murder mystery/satire, Art School Confidential isn’t exactly a bad film; it’s just not a particularly good one. Max Minghella stars as an art school freshman who wants to be the next Picasso. But the overstuffed plot forces him to contend with artistic pretension, self-absorbed teachers, strange roommates, a drunken failure, a beautiful model, his own virginity, and a serial killer. (Minghella must also contend with not really being star material.) We’re told early on that the students are all stereotypes, but that doesn’t help the fact that they are, in fact, all stereotypes. Art School Confidential has its share of funny moments, and a couple of clever plot twists, but it isn’t a must-see movie by a long shot.

Recommended: United 93, 4Star, opens Friday. We can enjoy the vicarious thrill of movie theater fear because glamorous-but-familiar faces, Hollywood sheen, witty dialog, and genre conventions all conspire to remind us that it’s only a movie, and that it will end in triumph and redemption. Paul Greengrass’ harrowing 911 retelling gives us no such reassurance. There is no glamour in this cast of unknowns. The grainy, up-close, handheld camerawork doesn’t glow. No one is especially witty. And we know going in that something very close to this really happened and that no one came out of it alive. The result is the most nerve-wracking experience I’ve ever had in a movie theater. It isn’t fun, but it leaves you with greater appreciation of what those people went through.

Recommended: Jaws, Albert Park, San Rafael, Saturday, 8:00. Steven Spielberg thought this out-of-control production would end his still-new career. Instead, it put him on the top of the Hollywood pyramid. And with good reason. By combining an intelligent story (lifted by novelist Peter Benchley from Henrik Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People), brilliant editing, and a handful of effective shocks, Jaws scares the living eyeballs out of you. Unfortunately, this will be a DVD presentation.

Recommended: Brokeback Mountain, Castro, Monday through Wednesday. Ang Lee’s gay love story may one day seem as dated as Kramer vs. Kramer and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but today it looks like a masterpiece. Heath Ledger turns the stereotype of the strong, silent cowboy on its head, playing a man so beaten down and closed off from the world that every word is a struggle. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Williams are also brilliant as his lover and wife. And, of course, screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, working from a short story by E. Annie Proulx, deserve considerable credit. The Castro is the perfect theater for this movie, not only because of its location, but also because the giant screen will do justice to the magnificent photography.