The Whistler & Kung Fu @ the PFA

The Pacific Film Archive reopened after it’s usual late-spring hiatus last night, and I was there. They had two programs, one of which was a double-bill.

The double bill was the winner. Franchises are nothing new, and The Whistler series of low-budget film noirs ran from the mid to late-1940s. Based on a radio show, only two ingredients connect the Whistler movies together. First, there’s the title character, seen only as a back or a silhouette, who walks around, whistles, and narrates the story. Second, there’s one-time silent movie star Richard Dix, who starred in each film but never played the same character twice. In other words, these are independent, non-related movies held together by a gimmick.

Last night the PFA opened the series Strange Tales of the Whistler with the first two movies in the series, The Whistler and The Mark of the Whistler. Each movie ranWhistler_Whistler[1] about an hour (B features were short in those days), so the double feature didn’t take too much time.  Both were directed by future cult figure William Castle.

And both were pretty good, packing a surprising amount of plot into an hour.

In The Whistler, Dix plays a successful businessman, distraught and suicidal over the death of his wife, who hires a hit man to kill himself. When he changes his mind, calling off the hit man proves difficult. If the plot sounds familiar, Warren Beatty either lifted it for his 1998 Bullworth or he came up with the same idea. Either way, the story works better as noir than as political satire.

In The Mark of the Whistler, Dix plays a derelict who poses as someone else—someone who happens to have the same name–in order to collect an abandoned bank account. You know, if you’re going to pretend to be someone you’re not, you better make sure that person isn’t wanted by gangsters.

Both Whistler films were fun in that quick, B-movie way. The PFA will screen additional Whistler flicks on Wednesday and Saturday.

Like the B noirs, The Valiant Ones, screened after the Whistler double bill, had no intentions beyond light entertainment.  But, although far more elaborate and expensive, it didn’t succeed nearly as well.

A Hong Kong, period, Kung Fu action flick directed by King Hu in 1975, The Valiant Ones was pretty much wall-to-wall action. Much of it was fun, but just as much of it was tiresome. Hu gives us little reason to care about the characters, or their fight to rid Chinese coast of pirates. You can only watch the cool and never ruffled heroes easily kill incompetent adversaries for so long before you tire of the choreography and want some human interest.

On the other hand, it was fun to see a very young Sammo Hung turn up as a pirate leader.

The Valiant Ones was the first screening in another PFA series, Brought to Light: Recent Acquisitions to the PFA Collection. Other than the fact that the Archive has recently acquired prints of these films, there are no connections.

Kurosawa Diary, Part 16: The Bad Sleep Well

Few people know Kurosawa’s dark, contemporary, and suspenseful tale of corruption and revenge—perhaps because it was made around the same time as his three lightest and most entertaining sword-and-kimono flicks. Commercially speaking, it can’t stand up to its predecessor, The Hidden Fortress, or the two action comedies that would follow it, Yojimbo and Sanjuro. But that doesn’t mean it should be overlooked.

I first saw The Bad Sleep Well at the Castro several years ago. I saw it one other time—a satellite TV broadcast—before renting and watching the DVD last night as part of my project to see all available Kurosawa films in chronological order.

Even though I had seen this film twice before, and knew how it ended, it was still edge-on-the-seat suspenseful. But it wasn’t Hitchcock-like suspense, with the comfort of knowing that everything will turn out OK. Kurosawa doesn’t guarantee happy endings.

Chronologically speaking, this is a return to an old form. It was Kurosawa’s first modern-dress film in five years, and his first film noir in ten. In fact, Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, and The Bad Sleep Well can be viewed as his post-war noir trilogy.

The plot concerns a large, successful, and thoroughly corrupt corporation, and abadsleepwell young man (Toshiro Mifune) out to destroy it from the inside. It begins with his wedding to the president’s crippled daughter—an act that everyone reads as blind ambition (the engagement won him a job as the president’s personal secretary). But the real motive is revenge. Kurosawa reveals the reasons for and depth of that revenge slowly.

Thematically, if not stylistically, The Bad Sleep Well similar to the upcoming Yojimbo. Both look at the seamy place where capitalism and organized crime meet. And in both Mifune extracts vengeance through his clever manipulation of the villains’ fears and flaws. But while Yojimbo is a black comedy with a make-believe happy ending, The Bad Sleep Well is merely black.

In some ways, it looks forward to his later, bleaker work, like Ran. Good deeds not only punish those who do them; they’re also futile. Things aren’t black and white, here. The corrupt and murderous company president is also a loving and gentle father. And the righteous protagonist has a cruel streak that’s frightening.

My favorite Kurosawa actor, Takashi Shimura, gets his first juicy part since Record of a Living Being. It’s a supporting role, but it’s better than the brief cameos he usually got at this point in Kurosawa’s career. He plays one of the main corporate criminals—his first villain role for Kuroawa since No Regrets for Our Youth.

If you have a hankering to see it on the big screen, the Pacific Film Archive will show The Bad Sleep Well on June 19 as part of its Akira Kurosawa Centennial series.

Next up: Yojimbo.

What’s Screening: May 28 – June 3

A+ Double Bill Stagecoach (1939) & High Noon, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. Two of the best westerns ever made. In Stagecoach, nine very differentstagecoach people must cross dangerous territory in the titular vehicle–a journey that forces them to confront their prejudices as well as angry Apaches. A young, impossibly handsome John Wayne made the leap from B pictures to A-list star with his performance of an escaped convict, but it’s Thomas Mitchell’s alcoholic doctor who really carries the picture. In High Noon, Gary Cooper discovers who his real friends are (just about no one) in Carl Foreman and Fred Zinnemann’s simple fable of courage under fire. Foreman’s last produced screenplay before getting blacklisted, High Noon can be interpreted as a parable to a Hollywood gripped in McCarthyite fear.

B- Avatar, Red Vic, Friday through Monday. Yes, it’s the biggest commercial hit of all time (at least if you ignore a little thing called inflation), and that means you’re expected to either love it passionately or prove your superiority to the fanboys by looking down at it through your nose. Sorry, but I can’t do either. When all things are considered, you have a big, fun, spectacular, technically amazing science fiction adventure that goes on a bit too long and has its political heart in the right (or should I say the left) place. Yes, it’s dependent on clichés, including the one where the white guy saves the indigenous people (to be fair, Schindler’s List has that flaw, too). But it’s fun, amazing to look at, and is the first feature I’ve ever seen that really used 3D to enhance the story. In fact, if the Red Vic was showing Avatar in 3D, I’d give it an A-.

A- Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 7:15. The  enron biggest financial scandal ever (at least at the time) becomes the Great American tragedy in this highly entertaining documentary. Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, and the rest of the scoundrels are so filled with optimism and faith in their own narrowly-created worldview that their fall becomes inevitable. But the filmmakers never lose sight of the real tragedy–the innocent victims that these hubris-filled businessmen took down with them. Part of the series Brought to Light: Recent Acquisitions to the PFA Collection.

B+ Sparrows, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Sparrows’ plot feels like the stereotype of a silent film melodrama. An evil miser keeps children imprisoned and enslaved on what’s basically an island in the middle of a swamp. When it’s in his interest to kill them all, sweet and beautiful Molly (who else but Mary Pickford) must lead them to safety. The story is as silly as it sounds, but the photography and tints are so gorgeous, and Pickford is such a delight, that you forgive it all. I’m hoping the Museum screens the same gorgeous print shown at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival four years ago.  Judy Rosenberg on piano.

A Spirited Away, United Artists spirtedawayBerkeley, Thursday, 8:00. Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece is a beautiful, complex, and occasionally scary tale of a young girl cast into a strange and magical world. The intriguing and imaginative creatures, not to mention the moral dilemmas, are beyond anything that Dorothy ever had to deal with in Oz. Unfortunately, I suspect they’ll be screening the dubbed rather than the superior subtitled version.

A+ Some Like It Hot, Rafael, Sunday, noon. Free! Maybe this isn’t, as thesomelikehotAmerican Film Institute called it, the greatest American film comedy yet made. But Billy Wilder’s farce about desperate musicians, vicious gangsters, and straight men in drag definitely belongs in the top 20. And its closing line has never been beat.

Digital Projection & Classic Movies

Twice this month I saw, projected digitally, an older, arguably classic film, originally intended to be screened in 35mm. One was a major disappointment—technically, at least. The other was perfectly acceptable.

Both films were new “director’s cut” versions. I’m guessing that the owners of these films chose not to spend money on a 35mm print, although I have not checked with the distributers to confirm this.

The disappointing experience was with Ride with the Devil, screened at the Kabuki as ridewithdevilpart of the San Francisco International Film Festival’s tribute to James Schamus. (I’m not sure if Ride qualifies as a classic, as it’s only 11 years old and hasn’t been seen enough to earn the reputation that, IMHO, it deserves.)

Ride with the Devil was shot in anamorphic 35mm, with a 2.35×1 aspect ratio. Instead of using the full width of the Kabuki’s Theater 1 screen, it was letterboxed within a 1.85×1 frame, making it smaller than it should have been. While close-ups looked fine, long-shots in this period action film, shot mostly out of doors, looked washed out and lacked detail.

According to Festival Technical Director Jeremy Stevermer, Devil was screened off of HDCAM SR media with a 1920×1280 resolution. By comparison, Blu-ray is 1920×1080. However, since the image was letterboxed, we can safely assume that the effective resolution was the same as a Blu-ray disc.

I had a farmetropolis more satisfying experience with Metropolis at New York’s Film Forum. Much of the film, especially the newly-restored scenes, looked horrible, but it was film horrible—grain and scratches—not digital or video horrible. The scenes that came from good sources looked fantastic—as good as anything I’ve ever seen off of a silent film.

I don’t know the technical details of the presentation. The ads simply stated that it was presented in “HD.”

I also don’t know why the experiences were so different. But I have my theories:

  1. The Kabuki’s Theater 1 doesn’t normally do digital projection, and the Festival rented an HD projector for this and other non-film presentations. Either the installation or the projector itself may not have been as good as a permanent one.
  2. A color, widescreen movie may have made greater demands on the image-processing capabilities than a narrow-screen, black and white film shot more than 80 years ago.
  3. The Film Forum has pretty small screens, making it easier for an image to look good.

The new Metropolis restoration gets its San Francisco premiere at the Silent Film Festival in July. They will be projecting it digitally—I believe a first for that festival. Then we’ll see how the digital version looks on a really large screen.

Silent Film Festival Program Announced

The schedule for this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival is up. Running, as usual, at the Castro, the festival has been expanded from three days to four. Author, filmmaker, and archivist Kevin Brownlow will be in attendance, making this his second Bay Area festival appearance in a little over three years.

As usual, all screenings will be accompanied by live music. Diary of a Lost Girl (Germany 1929)   aka  Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen 
Directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst
Shown center: Louise Brooks Musicians include festival regular pianists Donald Sosin and Stephen Horne, as well as the ever-popular Dennis James on the Castro’s Wurlitzer pipe organ. The Alloy Orchestra makes its first SFSFF appearance in years, and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will accompany Diary of a Lost Girl. And a group I’ve never heard or even heard of, the Matti Bye Ensemble, will play for two films.

And all of them will get together Saturday afternoon for Variations on a Theme, a discussion on scoring silent films.

I have one complaint about the choice of musicians, however. Sosin will accompany A Spray of Plum Blossomstwo ethnically-interesting films: the Chinese A Spray of Plum Blossoms and the  African-American The Flying Ace. I like Sosin’s work, but specialists in Chinese and African-American music would have been more interesting choices. Five years ago, the festival used the Latin American Chamber Music Society for the Brazilian Sangue Mineiro, and Indian classical musicians for Prem Sanyas. I would have loved something in tune with those traditions.

Among the films to be screened are The Iron Horse, John Ford’s first big-budget western; the newly-restored, almost complete Metropolis (see my report); The Strong Man (whose last Bay Area screening I reported here); the Soviet classic Man with a Movie Camera; and the ever-popular Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages.

I know where I’m going to be for much of those four days.

What’s Screening: May 21 – 27

I Still Wake Up Dreaming is still playing the Roxie and will be playing there through the week. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s a film noir festival.

Other than that, not much to tell you about this week. But here are opportunities to see two very different views of China.

A- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, United Artists Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. Ang Lee and James Schamus turn the period kung fu epic into a character study of warriors who must choose between love and duty. The action scenes are among the most amazing ever filmed—complete with the gravity-denying leaps found only in Hong Kong cinema—but with a very human story at its core.

B- The Toll of the Sea, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Anna tollofsea May Wong received one of her few starring roles in this blatant rip-off of Madame Butterfly (set in China rather than the original’s Japan). But the real star is the very early two-color Technicolor process. A pretty good weepie lifted into special interest by Ms. Wong’s beauty and talent, and its value as an excellent record of a now-dead color process. The print is from a UCLA restoration made from the original negative (rare for a silent film). However, the last reel of The Toll of the Sea is missing, and the story filled in through new footage and title cards. Piano accompaniment by Frederick Hodges.

F Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Red Vic, Tuesday and Wednesday. Oh, how Terry Gilliam has fallen! Monty Python’s token Yank made three of the best movies of the 1980’s, then his career collapsed and took his talent with it. Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas reeks; a confused, ugly, and meaningless exercise–which would be forgivable, if it also wasn’t boring and witless.

The Newly Restored Metropolis

The latest restoration of Fritz Lang’s silent sci-fi epic Metropolis won’t play the Bay Area until the The San Francisco Silent Film Festival in July. But I’m currently in New York, and I saw it Friday night at the Film Forum. I’m finally willing to call it a true masterpiece. I can no longer say that “the beautiful imagery only makes the melodramatic plot and characters seem all the more trite.” What have we been missing all these years? Better character development. It’s no longer trite melodrama.

In case you haven’t heard, a very bad, 16mm print of something like Lang’s original cut was found about two years ago. For details, see this New York Times article.

Wonderful as this new restoration is, it’s hardly the ideal Metropolis. Several shots and one key scene are still missing, with the scene only described in intertitles. And the newly-added scenes look horrible—very badly scratched and not filling the entire frame. Part of the image was lost when it was transferred to 16mm in the 1970’s.

While that image quality is extremely detrimental if you just want to enjoy the movie, it’s an advantage academically. There’s no guesswork as to whether you’re watching a new scene. If it looks horrible, you are.

And what do these metropolishorrible-looking scenes add? We learn far more about the relationship between the city ruler, Joh Fredersen, and the mad scientist Rotwang. They’re tied together by a history that makes them hate each other even when they need each other. There’s also a subplot involving a worker who impersonates a member of the aristocracy, getting to enjoy a life of glamour and comfort while trailed by a very evil-looking detective.

With a considerable number of added shots, the last act still makes a thrilling series of action set pieces, although the last of those set pieces still feels like one-to-many thrills. But it’s now the topping on a much better film. What was once a visually spectacular political melodrama is now an epic story of real people in a futuristic setting.

The Film Forum’s presentation wasn’t ideal. They projected it in HD rather than on film, and with a recorded rather than live score. The HD looked excellent—I can’t really say for sure that it lost anything that way. The score was also very good…for a recorded score. That’s never the optimum way to see a silent film.

I’m looking forward to its festival screening at the Castro in July. That one should get it right.

Update, 5/21: The screening in July at the Castro will also be digital. But the Alloy Orchestra will be live.