SFIFF: Sunday at the Castro

I forsook the Kabuki for two San Francisco International Film Festival events at the Castro today.

La Dolce Vita

This was my second time seeing what many consider Fellini’s masterpiece. The first time–maybe 15 or 20 years ago–was at the UC Theater (of blessed memory). That was also from a new restoration spearheaded by Martin Scorsese. I expected to be wowed that time, but instead found it very disappointing.

I liked it a great deal more this time (different expectations, perhaps?), but it didn’t knock me over. I still can’t quite call it a masterpiece. Yes, this story of a society gossip journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) living on the outskirts of the rich and decadent, has many great moments–from the opening shot of Jesus flying through the air via helicopter to the climactic out-of-control party. The famous fountain scene is absolutely stunning, and makes brilliant use of the Cinemascope frame (a punchline is timed not by editing or performance, but by an expectation of when the audience will notice the right edge of the screen). And there’s the heart-wrenching moment when photographers surround a woman before she’s told that her husband and children are dead.

But the story doesn’t really go anywhere, and there are long, dull areas in between the brilliance. It ends with one of those sequences, leaving a bad taste.

By the way, La Dolce Vita may be the only foreign-language film to add a word to the English language. Mastroianni’s character works with an annoying and celebrity-chasing photographer named Paparazzo. The plural, of course, is paparazzi.

Mel Novikoff Award

French restoration expert, distributor, and entertainer Serge Bromberg came on stage to receive this year’s award, “given to an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the film-going public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema.” After a brief Q&A where he told preservation horror stories, and set some nitrate film on fire, he guided us through the main event: A program of rare 3D shorts.

Among the highlights:

  • Three 3D cartoons from the 1950s, including works by Ward Kimball and Chuck Jones. Not surprisingly–considering the difference between Disney and Warner budgets–Kimball’s made more use of the medium. But Jones’ was funnier.
  • An early Pixar movie.
  • 3D tests made around 1935 by the Lumiere Brothers, who 40 years earlier had played a key role in inventing cinema.
  • The earliest known 3D films, from 1900. These ran only a few seconds each and were intended to be viewed on individual, hold-up-to-the-face viewers. A couple of them appeared to end just before they became pornographic.
  • A Soviet film of some very impressive jugglers.
  • Three unintentional 3D films by George Mêlées. How do you make unintentional 3D? In 1903, Mêlées built a camera that would expose two negatives side by side–one for Europe and one for America. If prints from both negatives survive (and there are only three known cases), they can be combined to make a 3D film.
  • He closed it with a new, CGI Roadrunner cartoon which came close to catching the old Chuck Jones spirit–but didn’t quite catch it.
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