PFA Weekend

I made it to the Pacific Film Archive twice this weekend. That’s two nights, two series openings, two screenings, three features, two shorts, and two masterpieces (one of them a short).

The Medieval Remake series opened Friday night with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. That’s the feature-length masterpiece of the weekend, and at 205 minutes, it’s enough masterpiece for two great features. Plotless and episodic, Andrei Rublev tells us multiple (mostly ficticious) stories in the life of the title character–a famous 15th-century religious painter. Rublev’s role in these stories varies; sometimes he’s an active participant, other times a passive observer. What he observes is a world of poverty, faith, political and religious conflict, and horrifying, seemingly random violence. People in positions of power maim and kill those without power for little reason or none at all. Basically a religious epic, Rublev seems to question the meaning of faith in a hostile universe while emphasizing its importance.

I couldn’t help wondering how Tarkovsky made such a religious film under Communist rule. It helped, I suspect, that most of the film’s writing and pre-production occurred during Nikita Khrushchev’s relatively lax reign. But it didn’t surprise me to read that the film wasn’t released in the U.S.S.R. until five years after its 1966 completion. According to Wikipedia, however, the censors objected to the film’s graphic violence, not it’s open Christianity.

My one complaint: The print disappointed. It had seen better days, and was considerably scratched at the beginning and end of reels. Worse, the subtitles were poorly printed, making them difficult to read–all but impossible to read when they were against a white background. And this in a Russian film with plenty of snow.

On Saturday night I saw four films that have a lot in common with Andrei Rublev. They were all shot and projected on black and white 35mm film at 24 frames per second. Okay, I lied. The short “Black and Tan” was shot in 35mm, but the PFA presented a 16mm print.

The event was the first night of another PFA series, Cool World: Jazz and the Movies, and the 1929 “Black and Tan”–Duke Ellington’s first film appearance–started it off. This is a strange little two-reeler. Clearly designed as an Ellington vehicle, it’s saddled with a dumb dramatic plot where 17 minutes of music would have been more entertaining. And aside from two comic repo men, the all-black cast avoids the stereotypes so common in Hollywood films of those days.

The other short, “Jammin’ the Blues,” is the other masterpiece of the evening, and the only film in the group I’d seen before. Made in 1944, it purports to show us an actual jam session with Lester Young and other great musicians. It’s clearly staged for the camera with multiple setups and retakes–a jam session recorded, then recreated visually for the camera. But it’s also 10 minutes of great music and visual flare.

There’s nothing so great about Beware, the 1946 B feature (more like a Z feature) that followed the shorts. This one’s a vehicle for band leader Louis Jordan, who was no Ellington or Young, even though he was popular in his day. Made exclusively for African-American audiences (they called these race pictures back then), Beware is a trite and clichéd story badly told, accompanied by songs that seldom rise above pleasant.

The evening’s second feature, Too Late Blues, was a considerable improvement. Made in 1962, this is John Cassavetes’ second film as a director and his only work for a major Hollywood studio. Appropriately enough, it’s about a jazz musician (Bobby Darin in what was touted as his first serious role) who refuses to sell out and go commercial. But Cassavetes suggests that this has more to do with the character’s messed up mind than any truly noble cause.

There’s little here that one would recognize as Cassavetes. For one thing, the characters tend to explain their emotional problems, and each other’s emotional problems, in long and artificial-sounding speeches. That’s common in early-’60s Hollywood serious drama, but Cassavetes knew better.