What’s Screening: March 30 – April 5

Feeling festive? Sorry. No festivals this week. However, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts starts a series called Great Directors Speak! 

And here’s something that doesn’t happen often: Saturday, you can choose between two great French silent films, each accompanied by a full orchestra, playing within five miles of each other.

A+ Napoleon, Oakland Paramount, Saturday and Sunday, 1:30. To call this the biggest Bay Area movie event in recent memory would be napoleona gross understatement. This is the only engagement of Napoleon, in its near-complete form, outside of Europe. No other film I’ve seen uses the camera and the editor’s scissors quite like this one. Director Able Gance put the camera on a pendulum and swung it over heated political arguments, cut so swiftly that many shots are almost subliminal, and used double exposure expressively. And then, for the closing, he opened up the screen to three times its original width. And all of these innovations serve of the story. Carl Davis’s score, which he conducts with the Oakland Symphony, added zeal, depth, and beauty. This weekend will be your last chance ever to enjoy this amazing experience. Read my full report.

A+ Voices of Light/The Passion of Joan of Arc, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, Saturday, 8:00. Few cinematic dramas, silent or otherwise, surpass Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Based on transcripts from Joan’s 15th century trial for heresy, Dreyer’s film concentrates on people–not myths. Renée Jeanne Falconetti plays Joan as an illiterate, 19-year-old peasant girl in way over her head and terrified. Then there’s the music. Richard Einhorn composed Voices of Light in 1994, both as a score for Passion and as a separate work that stands on its own. But blended together, the film and the music create an altogether unique and powerful meditation on faith and oppression.  I attended a Voices/Passion presentation in 2010, and found it "the greatest film/live music experience of my 40+ years as a silent film aficionado." This time around, the music will be performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the UC Choral Ensembles.

Kevin Brownlow: “Abel Gance’s Napoleon, A Restoration Project Spanning a Lifetime”, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00. Never mind. It’s sold out. Damn it!

Niles Studio 100th Anniversary, at and around the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Sunday (movie program starts at 2:30). On April 1, 1912, Gilbert Anderson (born Max Aronson and best known as Broncho Bill Anderson) opened Essanay’s West Coast studio in Niles, and this Sunday the town celebrates. There’s the steam train, a brass band, a party in the plaza, and several movies (mostly documentaries about the studio). Appropriate costumes are encouraged.

A- The Thing from Another World, Pacific Film Archive, Tuesday, 7:00. Christian Nyby officially directed it, but most historians agree that producer Howard Hawks the_thingactually called the shots. Whoever directed this story of a predatory alien loose on an isolated, arctic army base, wisely kept the guy in the rubber suit off camera as much as possible. Much scarier that way. But like so many Hawks movies, this isn’t so much about the plot as it is about the camaraderie between a mostly–but not entirely–male group of professionals. Part of the series Howard Hawks: The Measure of Man.

Sodankylä Forever: The Century of the Cinema and The Yearning for the First Cinema Experience, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Sunday, 2:00. In the first program in the YBCA’s Great Directors Speak series, clips of film directors discussing their early lives give us a history of the 20th century, as well as their first experiences going to the movies. All of the recorded discussions come from the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Sodankylä, Finland.

A The Roaring Twenties, Stanford, Tuesday through Thursday. Interesting how the best gangster movie of the 1930s arrived years after the roaringtwentiesgenre had run down. Perhaps historical perspective helped. James Cagney returns home from WWI, discovers that he can’t get an honest job, and then finds work in a new, emerging industry–bootlegging. He rises to the top of the racket, only to discover that it won’t bring him happiness, a nice girl, or security. Humphrey Bogart, on the edge of stardom, plays a much less sympathetic hoodlum. On a double bill with something called Four Daughters.

Double Bill: John Cassavetes & Marcel Ophuls and Jean-Luc Godard: The Meeting in St-Gervais, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thursday, 7:30. Documentarian André S. Labarthe follows a young Cassavetes around as the filmmaker talks about his then current project, Faces. In the other feature, two very different pillars of French cinema discuss many topics in a Geneva theater.

A Red Desert, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:10. No one has ever called Michelangelo Antonioni’s study of pollution and madness a thriller, yet it filled me with a red_desertsense of foreboding and dread that Alfred Hitchcock seldom matched. Monica Vitti holds the screen as a housewife and mother struggling to maintain her slipping sanity. It’s no surprise she’s breaking down; her husband manages a large plant that’s spewing poison into the air, water, and ground (Antonioni made absolutely sure that his first color film would not be beautiful). Through her mental deterioration, she plans to open a shop (without any clear idea of what she’ll sell), flirts with one of her husband’s co-workers (Richard Harris, dubbed into Italian), worries about disease, and attends a party that stops just short of an orgy. Carlo Di Palma’s brilliant camerawork adds to the sense of mental isolation; I’ve never seen out-of-focus images used so effectively.

A+ The Godfather, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. Francis Coppola, taking the job simply because he needed the money, turned Mario Puzo’s potboiler into the Great American Crime Epic. Marlon Brando may have top billing, but Al Pacino owns the film (and became a star) as Michael Corleone, the respectable son inevitably and reluctantly pulled into a life of crime he doesn’t want but for which he seems exceptionally well-suited. A masterpiece, recently restored by the master of the craft, Robert A. Harris.

B+ Sing-Along Wizard of Oz, Castro, Friday through Sunday. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving it a B+. Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion), The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else sees. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A. I haven’t experienced the sing-a-long version.

This Year’s San Francisco International Film Festival

This has been a tough year for the San Francisco Film Society, the organization that produces the San Francisco International Film Festival. In August, Executive Director Graham Leggat died of cancer. Then his successor, Bingham Ray, suddenly died in January.

But that’s not stopping the Society from putting on a festival this year, and making it a celebration rather than a dirge. The 55th annual San Francisco International Film Festival will run April 19 through May 3 at the Kabuki, the Castro, the Pacific Film Archive, and the Film Society’s own New People Cinema. Most screenings will be at the Kabuki.

Opening night will be a tribute to Leggat–who really did do a superb job running the Society. The night kicks off with a screening at the Castro of Benoît Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen, set in Versailles during the French Revolution. Having just been overwhelmed by Napoleon, this somehow seems appropriate. After the movie, partying will start at the Terra Gallery.

Ray never had the chance to be as important to the Society as Leggat, so his honor isn’t as big a deal. But it almost certainly involves a better movie. In his memory, the Festival will screen The Third Man at the Castro on the 28th.

This year, the Festival gives its Founder’s Directing Award goes to Kenneth Branagh, while the Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting goes to David Webb Peoples (Bladerunner, Unforgiven). Documentarian Barbara Kopple deservedly receives the Persistence of Vision Award.

A few other notable events and trends:

  • The Centerpiece movie will be Your Sister’s Sister, written and directed by Lynn Shelton and starring Emily Blunt.
  • Director of Programming  Rachel Rosen insists that the Festival doesn’t intentionally create "spotlights"–series of films on a similar theme. But sometimes they just happen. This year, they have "Filming between the lines," films from literature. The three films spotlighted are Bonsái, Oslo, and Patience (After Sebald).
  • They have another spotlight that they appear not to have noticed: Film versions of Peter Townsend rock operas. To honor Ken Russell’s career, they’re screening Tommy in a late-night event hosted by Peaches Christ. But they’re also showing Quadrophenia.
  • In the Festival’s tradition of linking locally-respected musicians with silent films, Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs will play for four Buster Keaton Shorts. You’ll find my thoughts on this event here.
  • And while we’re talking about music, the festival will close with the documentary Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey.

Napoleon at the Paramount: An Incredible Day at the Movies

Abel Gance’s Napoleon so overwhelmed me that I hardly know where to start. Despite a few slow sequences, the experience was as innovating, exciting, and entertaining as anything I’ve experienced as part of an audience. I doubt I have ever seen such a perfect melding of cinema and showmanship; the movie requires this special presentation, and the presentation would overwhelm any other movie.

Napoleon is huge in every sense of the word, from its 5 ½-hour runtime to its vistas crammed with thousands of extras to its epic subject matter–Napoleon Bonaparte’s life from childhood through his emergence as France’s ruler and his conquest of Italy. With that conquest, the picture literally goes huge, expanding the screen to three times its original width. Yet the picture finds time for intimacy. A young boy cries over the disappearance of a pet. A teenage girl struggles with a crush on man far outside her reach. A peasant struggles to hide his illiteracy.

Plenty of epics have intimate moments. But no other film I’ve seen uses the camera and the editor’s scissors quite like Napoleon. Gance put the camera on a pendulum and swung it over heated political arguments. He cut so swiftly that many shots are almost subliminal. He used double exposure (which had to be done in the camera back then) to show us the same incident from different angles, or to place a face over an action scene.

And then, more than five hours into the movie, the masking beside the screen opens up like a curtain, and 25 years before Cinerama, the screen goes wide. The result is breath-taking.

Like Cinerama, Gance’s Polyvision used three synchronized projectors to create an immersive, widescreen cinematic experience. Except that here the screen is angled rather than curved, and there’s no real attempt to hide the join lines. The illusion is problematic, and the projectionists appeared to be constantly adjusting frames to make the panels line up. When a horse rides across the screen in the background, it disappears briefly between the right and center panels. But when it rides across near the camera, the illusion is all but perfect.

Gance didn’t limit Polyvision to panoramic shots. He also used it to put three separate images onto the same giant screen. You might, for instance, have a close-up of Napoleon in the center, and his fighting army on the sides.


Yet none of these innovations feel like mere showing off. The technique was always in the service of the story.

And the presentation, underwritten by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, was always in the service of the film. To properly present Napoleon, they had to build a special three-part screen, as well as masking that would conceal two of those parts and then open up on cue. They also had to build three special projection booths.

Let’s not forget the music. I’ve been a fan of composer/conductor Carl Davis since PBS started broadcasting British transfers of silent films. Yesterday, I got to hear him conduct an orchestra live for the first time. His score, which leaned heavily (and appropriately) on Beethoven, added zeal, depth, and beauty to the film. When a character on screen was playing a musical instrument, we heard that instrument. A bass drum provided explosions, and nothing was missing.

My wife, herself a classical musician, knows some of the performers. They told her that Davis was wonderful to work with. I already knew he was talented; it’s nice to find out he’s a nice guy, too.

Another new experience for me: I’ve seen many silent films with tints–more than I can tell you. But this was the first time I actually saw a tinted print. In the past, the tints were always recreated on color film–or, more often, on video. But Kevin Brownlow printed the restored Napoleon on black-and-white film, then added the tints by running the print through a dye bath, more accurately recreating the original prints.

The effect was outstanding. The tints were far more vibrant than anything you could create on color film. At the very end, Gance (and Brownlow) combined tints with Polyvision, tinting the left strip of film blue and the right one red, while leaving the middle one untinted. The result was a giant Tricolor flag with moving images of Napoleon’s Italian victory. Even the Francophobes  in the audience applauded.

Which brings me to what I didn’t like about Napoleon: For all of its technical and artistic brilliance, it’s jingoistic, blindly patriotic, and unquestionably pro-war. Yes, I’ve read that Gance was a pacifist, and that he planned to be more critical in the five planned but never produced sequels. But I have to judge the film he made, and it borders on fascism. It treats military prowess as the greatest virtue, and assumes that France has a natural right to attack neighboring countries. It treats the title character, a man who unleashed war and destruction across Europe while crowning himself emperor in the name of an anti-monarch revolution, as a near god. The last time I saw a film with so many extras looking adoringly at the protagonist, it was about Jesus.

In his defense, I should mention that Gance shows us a handful of horrors-of-war images. But these are minor compared to his jingoistic call for imperialism in the name of revolution.

Napoleon’s thematic problems don’t take away from its amazing artistry–an artistry that could never be reproduced on any home-based entertainment system. It plays two more times next weekend. If you miss it, you will almost certainly never again get another chance.

Note, 3/25/2012: I have altered this post, adding the above photo and the sentence that precedes it.


Casablanca: The Accidental Masterpiece

I’ve already told you about watching Casablanca at a big multiplex. Now I can talk about the movie itself.

To my mind, Casablanca is Hollywood’s accidental masterpiece. The handful of equally beloved films from the studio era–Citizen Kane, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life–were unique from their inceptions. They were either independent films made outside of the studio system, or specials that the studios intended to be exceptional.

But Casablanca was just another movie off the Warner Brothers assembly line–a modest A picture with a somewhat expensive director and cast and penny-pinching production values. For most of the people who worked on it, it was just another assignment.

Yet somehow it turned out a masterpiece–one of the great American films. Perhaps it’s the million monkeys on a million typewriters theory. With seven major studios grinding out 40-50 features a year each for 20 years, one of them was bound to come out great.

A warning: I’m assuming here that you’ve seen Casablanca. If you haven’t, don’t read about it–just see it.

So why has this factory-built movie, designed to be topical in 1942, stood the test of time so well? Why does everyone still love Casablanca?

First, consider the movie’s themes. The idea of personal sacrifice for the greater good was topical as America joined World War II, but it’s also timeless and universal. Anyone who has ever had to weigh their personal desires against what they knew was right understands Rick’s dilemma. A disillusioned idealist, Rick knows that he cannot remain neutral without losing his humanity. His moral victory inspires us all.

Second, although the filmmakers added nothing innovative or experimental, they crafted a very well-made film. Consider the early sequence of police “rounding up the usual suspects.” Within a very short period of time, we’re drawn into the environment, told that the people have good reasons to fear the government, and introduced to a couple of minor characters who will turn up elsewhere.

Just look at the sequence’s last 24 seconds:

Notice the young couple glimpsed as he runs away? And the way composer Max Steiner highlights the words on the poster?

Or consider the rain at the Paris train station, and how it substitutes for the tears that Rick is too manly to shed.

Have you ever noticed that most the first act takes place in Rick’s Café, and unfolds in real time? During that nearly half an hour we meet all the major and minor characters, discover the conflicts that will drive the plot, and watch Peter Lorre’s entire performance. The camera and editing take us to public and private dining rooms, Rick’s upstairs office, and the front entrance, and we never feel confined. Casablanca was based on an unproduced stage play, and this sequence could work in live theater with minimal script changes, but it never feels stagey.

Next, consider the cast. Sure, Bergman and Bogart were great stars, and Casablanca helped both of their careers. Claude Rains and Conrad Veidt added their own layers as the collaborator and the Nazi. But think of all the bit players who turned small roles into memorable icons: S.Z. Sakall as headwaiter Carl, Leonid Kinskey as the Russian bartender Sasha, Madeleine Lebeau as the lovesick and alcoholic Yvonne (that close-up of her singing La Marseillaise can bring tears to my eyes).

And, of course, Dooley Wilson as Sam.

The more you watch Casablanca, the more you see in it. I’ve always been intrigued by a line of Rick’s, “It’s December, 1941 in Casablanca. What time is it in New York?” Huh? That makes no sense. But it tells us two things: That the story is set during the month that the US joined the war, and that one of the screenwriters wanted us to know that. Could Rick, the man who begins the film saying that he “sticks his neck out for nobody” and ends it ready to “join the fight” be a metaphor for his home country?

And could Louis be, mildly and subconsciously, bisexual. His treatment of women is shocking by modern standards–the worst kind of sexual harassment. But his feelings for Rick may go beyond mere friendship. “If I was a woman…I would be in love with Rick,” he says at one point. But maybe the line simply tells us what we already know: Louis Renault is not only an amoral, corrupt government official, but a witty one.

Casablanca is so good, so inspiring, so well-made, and so damn entertaining, that we hardly notice that the plot makes almost no sense. Just one example: The authorities know that the letters of transit are stolen. In fact, anyone caught with them in Casablanca will be arrested for accessory to murder. So how come they can still be used at the airport to get you legally out of the country?

Seventy years ago, a group of well-paid artisans, most under long-term contracts, made a movie that was supposed to be like every other movie. Many of them didn’t like the story and wished they were doing something else. Somehow, they made a masterpiece. With a miracle like that, we can ignore a few holes in the plot.

What’s Screening: March 23 – 29

In festival news, Cinemadness starts tonight and ends Sunday (more on that below). But this week really means one thing for Bay Area film lovers:

Napoleon, Oakland Paramount, Saturday and Sunday (plus Saturday and Sunday next week), 1:30. To call this the biggest Bay Area movie event in recent memory would be napoleona gross understatement. Napoleon was last shown here 30 years ago, and this version is longer by more than a third. Kevin Brownlow considers this the greatest and most innovative film ever made, and the special three-strip Polyvision makes it extremely difficult and expensive to screen. Add to that Carl Davis (a hero to lovers of silent film accompaniment) conducting the Oakland Symphony performing his own score. So it’s surprise that these aren’t just the Bay Area’s only Napoleon screenings; they’re the only planned screenings in North America! Miss this experience, and you’ll probably never get to see Napoleon again. Did I mention that Kevin Brownlow considers this the greatest, and most innovative film ever made? I’ve got a ticket for Saturday, and will let you know if I agree with him on Sunday.


Cinemadness, Roxie, various programs Friday through Sunday. The Roxie goes up against Napoleon with a series of little-known, bizarre works co-sponsored by LA’s Silent Movie Theater. Features include Robert Altman’s Nixon movie Secret Honor, a documentary on George Kuchar, and—starting off the festivities Friday night—something called 100 Most Outrageous F—ks, which promises “the most outrageous clips of copulation across the history of film!” Now that’s something that Abel Gance never shot in Polyvision!

A- Sergeant York, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:00. No other event ever challenged commitments to pacifism like World War II. So it’s no surprise that, as America entered that horribly necessary inferno, Howard Hawks filmed the story of WWI hero Alvin C. York. According to Hawks, York was a deeply religious and pacifistic Christian (after he grew out of his irreverent troublemaker phase) who first objected to serving, then went on to prove extraordinary skills and courage on the battlefield, capturing a large number of German soldiers alive. The screenplay, whose four writers include Howard Koch and John Huston, takes the pacifist argument seriously, even if it ultimately comes down against it. Part of the series Howard Hawks: The Measure of Man.

B+ Sing-Along Wizard of Oz, Castro, Friday through Sunday. For those with kids too impatient for Napoleon, and too young for 100 Most Outrageous F—ks. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving it a B+. Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion). The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else sees. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A. I haven’t experienced the sing-a-long version.

A The Artist, Lark, opens Friday. Michel Hazanavicius just made a silent movie about the death of silent movies. Even more amazing than that, he pulls it off, creating a warm, funny, heartfelt, and occasionally sad story of a Hollywood star’s fall from grace as talkies ruin his career. Meanwhile, a struggling actress who loves him becomes a star in the new medium of talkies. Hazanavicius fills the picture with funny bits that illuminate the characters, the setting, and the medium. A black-and-white, narrow-screen, silent film is a hard sell in today’s market, and I’m pleasantly surprised to see that The Artist found an audience. Read my full review.

Watching Casablanca, Digitally Projected, at a Big Multiplex

Last night, Turner Classic Movies and Fathom–a company that distributes high-definition operas and stage plays to movie theaters–presented Casablanca in 485 theaters–mostly or entirely big multiplexes–across the USA. Needless to say, the movie was digitally projected. The event was tied to Casablanca’s 70th anniversary.

In fact, the show was officially titled Turner Classic Movies Presents Casablanca 70th Anniversary Event.

I attended the event at the AMC Bay Street 16 in Emeryville–a giant multiplex devoted almost exclusively to big Hollywood fare. I’ve seen many excellent presentations there, and just as many shoddy ones–both film- and digitally-based. I suspect that AMC has invested in the best equipment, but not in staff that knows how and cares about presenting the best show.

Last night, the presentation problems started immediately.

My wife and I arrived about half an hour before show time. The light level in the auditorium was appropriate for a screening, but way too dark for comfortably walking in a finding a seat. We had to use our phones as flashlights.

I returned to the lobby, found an employee, and complained. He promised to fix the situation and talked to someone via a walkie talkie. He did as promised; when I got back to the auditorium, the lights were appropriately set.

But when the show started (on time), the lights remained up. So once again I had to go to the lobby and register another complaint. This time I was treated with sarcasm and derision (“First you want the lights up, then you want them down!”), leaving me to wonder if the employees had been taught anything about the movie-going experience, or about working in a service industry. But they did, in fact, respond to my demand; by the time I got back to the auditorium, the lights were down.

The show began with a 15-minute documentary about Casablanca, hosted by TCM’s Robert Osborne. It was interesting, although there was little in it I didn’t know.

I’m a fan of digital projection, and think it’s just fine for classic films. But presentations like this could change my mind. Much of it looked great, but a lot of scenes looked washed-out and contrasty. Very white objects, like dinner jackets and Ingrid Bergman’s complexion, had a distracting shimmer to them, with tiny white spots swimming about at random. I suspect that this was film grain from the original source, somehow intensified by something in the digital stream.

I also have no idea who to blame. Were these problems the fault of Fathom, AMC, or a combination of both? This was my first hi-def Casablanca experience, but judging from Blu-ray reviews, I don’t think we can blame Warner Brothers’ transfer. I have no idea in what digital format this movie arrived–DCP, Blu-ray, via satellite, or something I’ve never heard of.

The movie sounded fine, except that the mono soundtrack seemed biased towards the right side of the screen. I would guess that it was coming through the center and right speakers. They should have either shut off the right speaker or turned on the left.

The movie itself, of course, was great. But you know that. I’ll discuss it in more detail in a future post.

Also great: the audience. People laughed in the right places, reacted with enthusiasm, and applauded at the ending. It had been maybe 20 years since I’d last seen Casablanca theatrically, and I’d forgotten just what a wonderful experience that is. It’s narrow-screen, mono, and black-and-white, and shot on cheap sets, but Casablanca deserves to be seen on a giant screen with an enthusiastic audience.

Despite the technical problems, it was overall a wonderful experience. It was, after all, Casablanca.

I wasn’t the only one who felt so. At the end of the movie, the audience applauded. Then we had to get up in the dark and find our ways to the exit. No one on staff, of course, thought to bring the lights up again.